Arthroscopy is the examination of a joint, specifically, the inside structures. The procedure is performed by inserting a specifically designed illuminated device into the joint through a small incision. This instrument is called an arthroscope. The procedure of arthroscopy is primarily associated with the process of diagnosis. However, when actual repair is performed, the procedure is called arthroscopic surgery.
Arthroscopy is used primarily by doctors who specialize in treating disorders of the bones and related structures (orthopedics) to help diagnose joint problems. Once described as essential for those who primarily care for athletic injuries, arthroscopy is now a technique commonly used by orthopedic surgeons for the treatment of patients of all ages. This procedure is most commonly used to diagnose knee and shoulder problems, although the elbow, hip, wrist, and ankle may also be examined with an arthroscope.
A joint is a complex system. Within a joint, ligaments attach bones to other bones, tendons attach muscles to bones, cartilage lines and helps protect the ends of bones, and a special fluid (synovial fluid) cushions and lubricates the structures. Looking inside the joint allows the doctors to see exactly which structures are damaged. Arthroscopy also permits earlier diagnosis of many types of joint problems which had been difficult to detect in previous years.
Most arthroscopic procedures today are performed in same-day surgery centers where the patient is admitted just before surgery. A few hours following the procedure, the patient is allowed to return home, although usually someone else must drive. Depending on the type of anesthesia used, the patient may be told not to eat for several hours before arriving. Before the procedure, the anesthesiologist will ask if the patient has any known allergies to local or general anesthetics. Airway obstruction is always possible in any patient who receives a general
anesthesia. Because of this, oxygen, suction, and monitoring equipment must be available. The patient's cardiac status should always be monitored in the event that any cardiac abnormalities arise during the arthroscopy.
The arthroscope is an instrument used to look directly into the joint. It contains magnifying lenses and glasscoated fibers that send concentrated light into the joint. A camera attached to the arthroscope allows the surgeon to see a clear image of the joint. This image is then transferred to a monitor located in the operating room at the time of the arthroscopy. This video technology is also important for documentation of the arthroscopic procedure. For example, if the surgeon decides after the arthroscopic examination that a conventional approach to surgically expose or "open" the joint (arthrotomy) must be used, a good photographic record will be useful when the surgeon returns to execute the final surgical plan.
The procedure requires the surgeon to make several small incisions (portals) through the skin's surface into the joint. Through one or two of the portals, a large-bore needle, called a cannula, is attached to tubing and inserted into the joint. The joint is inflated with a sterile saline solution to expand the joint and ensure clear arthroscopic viewing. Often, following a recent traumatic injury to a joint, the joint's natural fluid may be cloudy, making interior viewing of the joint difficult. In this condition, a constant flow of the saline solution is necessary. This inflow of saline solution may be through the cannula with the outflow through the arthroscope, or the positions may be reversed. The arthroscope is placed through one of the portals to view and evaluate the condition of the joint.
Before an arthroscopy can take place, the surgeon completes a thorough medical history and evaluation. Important for the accuracy of this diagnostic procedure, a
Proper draping of the body part is important to prevent contamination from instruments used in arthroscopy, such as the camera, light cords, and inflow and outflow drains placed in the portals. Draping packs used in arthroscopy include disposable paper gowns and drapes with adhesive backing. The surgeon may also place a tourniquet above the joint to temporarily block blood flow to the area during the arthroscopic exam.
General or local anesthesia may be used during arthroscopy. Local anesthesia is usually used because it reduces the risk of lung and heart complications and allows the patient to go home sooner. The local anesthetic may be injected in small amounts in multiple locations in skin and joint tissues in a process called infiltration. In other cases, the anesthetic is injected into the spinal cord or a main nerve supplying the area. This process is called a "block," and it blocks all sensation below the main trunk of the nerve. For example, a femoral block anesthetizes the leg from the thigh down (its name comes from femur, the thighbone). Most patients are comfortable once the skin, muscles, and other tissues around the joint are numbed by the anesthetic; however, some patients are also given a sedative if they express anxiety about the procedure. (It's important for the patient to remain still during the arthroscopic examination.)
General anesthesia, in which the patient becomes unconcious, may be used if the procedure may be unusually complicated or painful. For example, people who have relatively "tight" joints may be candidates for general anesthesia because the procedure may take longer and cause more discomfort.
The portals are closed by small tape strips or stitches and covered with dressings and a bandage. The patient spends a short amount of time in the recovery room after arthroscopy. Most patients can go home after about an hour in the recovery room. Pain medication may be prescribed for a short period; however, many patients find various over-the-counter pain relievers sufficient.
Following the surgical procedure, the patient needs to be aware of the signs of infection, which include redness, warmth, excessive pain, and swelling. The risk of infection increases if the incisions become wet too early following surgery. Because of this, it is good practice to cover the joint with plastic (for example, a plastic bag) while showering after arthroscopy.
The use of crutches is commonplace after arthroscopy, with progression to independent walking on an "as tolerated" basis by the patient. Generally, a rehabilitation program, supervised by a physical therapist, follows shortly after the arthroscopy to help the patient regain mobility and strength of the affected joint and limb.
The incidence of complications is low compared to the high number of arthroscopic procedures performed every year. Possible complications include infection, swelling, damage to the tissues in the joint, blood clots in the leg veins (thrombophlebitis), leakage of blood into the joint (hemarthrosis), blood clots that move to the lung (pulmonary embolus), and injury to the nerves around the joint.
The goal of arthroscopy is to diagnose a joint problem causing pain and/or restrictions in normal joint function. For example, arthroscopy can be a useful tool in locating a tear in the joint surface of the knee or locating a torn ligament of the shoulder. Arthroscopic examination is often followed by arthroscopic surgery performed to repair the problem with appropriate arthroscopic tools. The final result is to decrease pain, increase joint mobility, and thereby improve the overall quality of the patient's activities of daily living.
Less optimal results that may require further treatment include adhesive capsulitis. In this condition, the joint capsule that naturally forms around the joint becomes thickened, forming adhesions. This results in a stiff and less mobile joint. This problem is frequently corrected by manipulation and mobilization of the joint with the patient placed under general anesthesia.
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Jeffrey P. Larson, RPT
Hemarthrosis—A condition of blood within a joint.
Thrombophlebitis—Inflamation of a vein with the formation of a thrombus or clot.