Managing Your Time With An Orthopedist

What to Expect When You Have an Arthroscopy for Elbow Pain

Your elbow has cartilage, nerves, and bones arranged in a way that provides efficient movement. When your elbow is injured and becomes inflamed, movement becomes painful and your range of motion may become limited. Your family doctor might offer treatments such as pain relievers, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory medications. If your condition doesn't improve, your doctor might refer you to an orthopedic surgeon for elbow arthroscopy. Here's how an arthroscopy is done and how it might help your pain.

Why An Elbow Arthroscopy Procedure Is Done

While your doctor can study the results of imaging tests to get an idea of what's causing your pain, your doctor can see inside your elbow when you have an arthroscopy. During this procedure, the surgeon passes a scope through an incision in your skin and into your elbow joint. The scope has a tiny camera attached that sends video to a monitor your surgeon can watch as they move the scope around. This allows the surgeon to see scar tissue or tiny fragments of cartilage that might be causing your pain.

How an Arthroscopy Is Done

You might have this procedure done as an outpatient if you're in good health, but if you have a medical condition, your doctor might recommend a hospital stay. You'll probably receive general anesthesia so you'll sleep through the entire procedure. The advantage of having an arthroscopy over opening up your elbow to look around inside is that the surgeon can examine the inside of your elbow using only small incisions. The smaller incisions could mean a quicker recovery from the surgery.

The first step is to inject fluid into your elbow joint so the surgeon can visualize tissues more easily on the monitor. Then, the scope is inserted so the doctor can look around. The surgeon has an idea of your problem before the procedure. For instance, you may have a diagnosis of tennis elbow or arthritis, but once the inside of your elbow is visualized, the doctor can pinpoint the cause of your pain. Once that's known, the doctor determines how to proceed with the arthroscopy.

The surgeon may need to anchor tissue with stitches, trim the cartilage, remove fragments, or release scar tissue. This requires the insertion of various instruments that each need their own incision. When the surgery is over, the doctor may close the incisions with stitches and place your elbow in a plastic splint or cover it with a dressing depending on the type of procedure you had done.


Expect your recovery to take several weeks. You'll gradually be able to move your elbow and do more tasks. Your orthopedic surgeon will send you home with instructions on self-care that might include keeping your elbow elevated and doing frequent hand and finger movements. Rehabilitation is important so your muscles don't get weak during recovery. You may be taught exercises before you go home or even before you have the procedure so you can start them when your doctor instructs you to do so.