Elbow arthroscopy


The word 'arthroscopy' is derived for the two Greek words for 'joints' ('arthro') and 'see' (scopy') and is the medical term for what is known more widely as 'keyhole' or 'minimally invasive' surgery.

Arthroscopic surgery on the elbow is conducted both to examine the elbow joint and to perform surgical procedures on it.

The main benefits of arthroscopic surgery over conventional surgery are:

  • Generally shorter operations.
  • Shorter postoperative recovery (most patients can return home on the day of surgery).
  • Minimal scarring.

Arthroscopic techniques are generally used in the following elbow procedures:

  • Diagnostic examinations.
  • Clearing infection (especially inflamed synovial tissue).
  • Removing loose sections of bone / cartilage.
  • Treatment of elbow arthritis.
  • Treatment of damage to the humerus caused by osteochondritis dissecans (common in sports involving throwing and in gymnastics).

Preoperative Instructions

  • Existing medication(s) – some medications can impact surgery, especially any anti-coagulant medication and medicine for diabetes; we will advise if any of your medication needs to be stopped (and when) well ahead of the day of surgery. Any other medication should be taken the morning of surgery with a little water (half a cup maximum).
  • You should not shave (or wax) skin near where any surgical incisions will be made.
  • No solid foods (cow's milk and drinks containing cow's milk are considered food) should be consumed within 6 hours of surgery; clear fluids (e.g. water, cordial) may be consumed until 3 hours before surgery and then nil by mouth from that point.
  • Please advise us if you have a cold or fever, a cough or any other injuries or infections (e.g. urinary tract infection or cuts / tears to the skin) – your procedure may need to be postponed as any of these may make anaesthesia or surgery unsafe.
  • Please bring all imaging (e.g. x-rays / CT / MRI scans) with you to hospital.
  • Please come to hospital at least one hour before your planned surgery, unless we advise you otherwise.

In very general terms make sure you follow a healthy and balanced diet before surgery and continue any regular physical activity up until the day of the procedure.  If you smoke, you should ideally stop smoking at least four weeks before the procedure and otherwise as a minimum at least one week before.


Arthroscopic elbow procedures involve the insertion of a very small video camera and special arthroscopic surgical instruments through small incisions around the elbow while the patient is lying on their side or on their stomach. These incisions – called portals - are small (much smaller than incisions needed for conventional open surgery) at around 5mm-10mm in length and most procedures need 3-4 of these.

Arthroscopy is conducted under a general anaesthetic, although some procedures can be conducted under a form of local anaesthetic called a 'regional' anaesthetic where the patient is awake during the procedure.

Once the anaesthetic has taken effect and the necessary incisions have been made, a tourniquet is applied to prevent any bleeding and a saline solution is used to allow adequate visualisation of the elbow structures and before arthroscopic instruments are inserted. Once the specific procedure is completed, all instruments are withdrawn, the saline solution is drained, and the incisions are closed and dressed.

Postoperative Instructions

After an arthroscopic procedure the patient is sent to the recovery room for observation for around two hours and at that point is generally allowed to return home. Patients are strongly advised not to drive, return to work or make any important decisions until the next day, due to the continuing effect of the anaesthetic.

There is normally some pain after an arthroscopic procedure, so pain medication is supplied, and patients are advised to keep the elbow elevated and apply an ice pack to help reduce any swelling.

Full recovery generally takes several weeks (see sections on each procedure for specific recovery guidelines) after arthroscopic surgery. With many procedures a light recovery exercise program should be followed to reduce recovery time and allow full recovery of elbow joint function.


As with any surgery, with arthroscopic surgery of the elbow there is always a risk of:

  • Pain.
  • Bleeding.
  • Scarring.
  • Infection (of the incision site, or in the chest).
  • Blood clot (leg or lung).
  • Stroke.
  • Heart attack.
  • Damage to nerves / blood vessels.

Specific risks of arthroscopic elbow surgery compared to other types of arthroscopy (e.g.: hip / knee) include:

  • Slightly elevated infection risk.
  • Slightly elevated nerve injury risk.

Related Information

Elbow arthritis