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Is It Time for an Arthroscopy? What You Need to Know About This Common Procedure

If you lead an active lifestyle, play a sport regularly, or hit the pavement for a walk or run a few times a week, then you're doing wonders for your overall health. The downside, however, is that physical activity takes its toll on your body. No matter how careful you are to stretch, eat well, and take care of yourself, most people can't avoid injury forever.

Whenever that fateful day arrives, it's likely your doctor will recommend an arthroscopy. The prospect of surgery may be scary, but know that this is a common, minimally invasive orthopedic procedure used to fix a number of injuries. Also called scoping, it can even be an option when aging affects your joints. Let's look at what this procedure is and what you can expect if you ever need one.

What Happens During the Procedure?

Arthroscopy is an orthopedic surgery that allows your doctor to look inside your joints and make repairs if necessary, and it's most commonly used to address problems in the knees, shoulders, or hips. It involves a small, fiber-optic camera and tiny instruments. Because scoping requires only small incisions, it's labeled a minimally invasive procedure.

Doctors recommend scoping for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Injury of a joint during a sports activity.
  • Joint pain that doesn't respond to conservative therapy such as rest, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory medication.
  • To repair torn ligaments or cartilage.
  • To remove cysts in or near a joint.
  • To examine a joint for damage.

What's It Like to Get Scoped?

To scope your joint, the doctor will make two or more small incisions and insert a flexible wand containing the camera to see exactly what is causing your joint trouble. The camera projects images onto a monitor for your surgeon to look at. If this examination reveals an issue that can be fixed right away, such as torn cartilage that needs to be removed from your knee, your doctor will insert small instruments through the other incision to perform these repairs.

General anesthesia is often used, so you'll likely sleep through the whole procedure. Alternatively, your anesthesiologist may recommend local anesthesia (numbing medication injected near the joint) or spinal anesthesia (to numb a large area of your body). Most patients go home the same day.

Why Arthroscopy Instead of Regular Surgery?

Scoping offers many advantages over regular surgery (known as "open" surgery by medical professionals). Because scoping a joint only involves a few small incisions, you should experience less pain during recovery, and you usually don't have to stay overnight in the hospital afterward.

As with any type of surgical procedure, though, scoping has its risks. According to the National Institutes of Health, these arthroscopy risks include bleeding into the joint, damage to nearby tendons and ligaments, infection, joint stiffness, and blood clot development.

Don't be alarmed when doctors put arthroscopy on the table, because it's generally considered a safe and effective way to examine and treat common joint problems such as ligament or cartilage tears. It's definitely closer to the minor end of the spectrum when it comes to surgeries, so think of it as the best way for medical professionals to know what's going on with your joints and what's causing you pain. From there, you can work with your care providers to decide on the best course of action for your treatment.

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