Shoulder Arthroscopy


Sarah Lewis, PharmD

What is shoulder arthroscopy?

Shoulder arthroscopy is minimally invasive surgery to diagnose or treat many types of shoulder problems. This includes inflammatory conditions, infections, injuries, arthritis, and unexplained symptoms. Your doctor uses an arthroscope with a tiny camera to view the inside of the shoulder joint. Your doctor can treat joint problems using special instruments during a shoulder arthroscopy. This relieves symptoms and restores range of motion. 

Shoulder arthroscopy is a common procedure, but it involves some risk and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all of your treatment choices before having shoulder arthroscopy. 

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may also perform a biopsy during shoulder arthroscopy. A biopsy involves removing a cell or tissue sample and testing it for cancer and other diseases. 

You may need open surgery – shoulder arthrotomy – for a shoulder condition that your doctor cannot treat with arthroscopy. Open surgery involves a larger incision that allows your doctor to directly view and treat the shoulder.

Why is shoulder arthroscopy performed? 

Your doctor may recommend shoulder arthroscopy to diagnose shoulder symptoms when a cause is not clear. Shoulder arthroscopy can also treat shoulder conditions when symptoms have not responded to other treatments. 

Shoulder arthroscopy is not the first choice to treat shoulder conditions. Your doctor may only consider it for you if other treatment options that involve less risk of complications have been ineffective. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion.

Your doctor may recommend shoulder arthroscopy to diagnose or treat: 

  • Inflammatory conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, synovitis, and tendinitis

  • Loose bodies, including bone fragments and cartilage pieces

  • Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, which is the breakdown of cartilage and bones

  • Shoulder joint infections, also called septic arthritis

  • Shoulder joint injuries, including fractures, dislocations, torn ligaments, torn cartilage, rotator cuff problems, and overuse injuries

  • Unexplained shoulder symptoms, including pain, swelling, stiffness, instability, locking, catching and grinding

Who performs shoulder arthroscopy?

Orthopedic surgeons perform shoulder arthroscopy. Orthopedic surgeons are specially trained to treat problems of the bones and joints. They perform surgery and prescribe other treatments. 

How is shoulder arthroscopy performed?

Your shoulder arthroscopy will be performed in a hospital or outpatient surgery setting. It is a minimally invasive surgery that involves making at least two small incisions in the shoulder. Your surgeon will insert an arthroscope and special instruments through the incisions. A tiny camera on the arthroscope allows your surgeon to view the inside of your shoulder on a video screen. Your surgeon will examine and repair joint damage as needed. 

Types of anesthesia 

Your surgeon will perform your shoulder arthroscopy using either general anesthesia or regional anesthesia. 

  • General anesthesia is a combination of intravenous (IV) medications and gases that put you in a deep sleep. You are unaware of the surgery and do not feel any pain.

  • Regional anesthesia is also known as a nerve block. It involves injecting an anesthetic around certain nerves to numb a large area of the body. You will likely have sedation with regional anesthesia to keep you relaxed and comfortable.

What to expect the day of your shoulder arthroscopy

The day of your surgery, you can expect to:

  • Talk with a preoperative nurse. The nurse will perform an exam and ensure that all needed tests are in order. The nurse can also answer questions and will make sure you understand and sign the surgical consent form.

  • Remove all clothing and jewelry and dress in a hospital gown. It is a good idea to leave all jewelry and valuables at home or with a family member. The surgical team will give you blankets for modesty and warmth.

  • Talk with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist about your medical history and the type of anesthesia you will have.

  • A surgical team member will start an IV.

  • The anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will start your anesthesia.

  • A tube may be placed in your windpipe to protect and control breathing during general anesthesia. You will not feel or remember this or the surgery as they happen.

  • The surgical team will monitor your vital signs and other critical body functions. This occurs throughout the surgery and during your recovery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and your vital signs are stable.

What are the risks and potential complications of shoulder arthroscopy?  

As with all surgeries, shoulder arthroscopy involves risks and complications. Complications may become serious and life threatening in some cases. Complications can develop during surgery or recovery. 

General risks of surgery 

The general risks of surgery include: 

  • Anesthesia reaction, such as an allergic reaction and problems with breathing

  • Bleeding, which can lead to shock

  • Blood clots

  • Infection 

Potential complications of shoulder arthroscopy

Complications of shoulder arthroscopy include:

  • Blood vessel damage

  • Instrument breakage during surgery

  • Nerve damage

  • Persistent symptoms

  • Shoulder weakness or stiffness

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by following your treatment plan and:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations before surgery and during recovery. This may include physical therapy and shoulder exercises.

  • Informing your doctor if you are nursing or there is any possibility of pregnancy

  • Notifying your doctor immediately of any concerns, such as severe swelling, bleeding, fever, increase in pain, or wound redness, swelling or drainage

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed

  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies

How do I prepare for my shoulder arthroscopy? 

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before surgery can improve your comfort and outcome. You can prepare for shoulder arthroscopy by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history, allergies, and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Arranging for a ride home after surgery. It is also a good idea to have someone stay with you for the first 24 hours.

  • Getting preoperative testing as directed. Testing will vary depending on your age, health, and specific procedure. Preoperative testing may include X-rays, EKG (electrocardiogram), blood tests, and other tests as needed.

  • Losing excess weight before surgery through a healthy diet and exercise plan

  • Not eating or drinking before surgery as directe