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Understanding Shoulder Arthroscopy

Shoulder pain is an extremely common complaint that you shouldn’t just brush off. While many symptoms are linked to minor injuries and decrease over time as the damage heals, there are other symptoms you should not ignore.

If you’ve exhausted nonsurgical methods for persistent shoulder pain or an injury, you may be considering surgical intervention. This can be done using a minimally invasive surgery technique known as arthroscopy or using traditional open techniques.

What is shoulder arthroscopy?

Shoulder arthroscopy is a commonly performed minimally invasive procedure that’s been around since the 1970s to treat several conditions. Arthroscopy was first used routinely in the knee and has grown to be used in nearly every joint in the body from the hip to the fingers. Today, more than 1.4 million shoulder arthroscopies are performed worldwide each year.

“The specific injury being treated will play a role in determining the best surgical approach, but in general, arthroscopic surgery provides the surgeon with better visualization of the shoulder without having to physically open the joint,” said Samuel Harmsen, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and shoulder specialist with TOCA at Banner Health in Arizona. “Arthroscopic techniques allow surgeons to accurately diagnose and treat problems in the shoulder such as rotator cuff and other tendon tears, instability, impingement, fractures and even some degrees of arthritis.”

How is shoulder arthroscopy performed?

The procedure involves small incisions in your skin through which a pencil-thin camera and other surgical instruments are used to visualize and perform the necessary repairs of your shoulder. The surgery can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours depending on what repair is needed. Like other arthroscopic procedures, shoulder arthroscopy is typically performed on an outpatient basis so you can return home hours after surgery.

What are the advantages of shoulder arthroscopy?

Although shoulder arthroscopy has rapidly expanded in popularity over the years, it is an extremely valuable alternative to open surgery as it is generally easier on patients. It allows for a quicker recovery and carries fewer risks.

“While open surgery is still the gold standard for surgical treatment, with improved technique and surgeon skill, arthroscopy offers equivalent—if not better results—for patients,” Dr. Harmsen said. “It really has become a mainstay of surgical treatment for the shoulder.”

Benefits include:

  • Faster recovery times
  • Less scarring
  • No hospital stays
  • Fewer risks and complications

What are the complications of shoulder arthroscopy?

Most patients do not experience complications from shoulder arthroscopy, but with any surgery, there are some risks. These are usually minor and treatable. Infection, blood clots, excessive swelling or bleeding, joint stiffness or damage to blood vessels or nerves are potential complications but occur in a very small percentage of arthroscopic procedures.

What happens post-surgery?

Following surgery, you may be in a sling or a special `shoulder immobilizer' depending on the surgery performed and your surgeon’s preference. You will be given specific instructions about whether you are allowed to move your arm immediately after the surgery. Your surgeon may also prescribe physical therapy to speed up recovery and improve joint function.

Most patients can usually return to work or resume daily activities within days and return to full activity about 10 to 12 weeks after surgery.

“Although this is a common recovery period, each patient’s arthroscopic surgery is unique to that person and their individual shoulder,” Dr. Harmsen said. “Some patients may have a more complicated shoulder that requires a longer recovery to heal appropriately. Furthermore, different conditions and procedures have longer recovery times than others. Individual surgeons have specific post-operative protocols for each surgery performed. It’s always important to listen to and follow your surgeon’s recommendations to optimize your outcome.”

Are you considering shoulder arthroscopy surgery?

If you are considering arthroscopic surgery, make sure you find a surgeon who is experienced in this type of procedure. Knowing your surgeon’s experience level can help you decide if you have found the right doctor.

“The shoulder is a complex joint, so find a surgeon who specializes specifically in arthroscopic shoulder surgeries if this is the path you wish to take,” Dr. Harmsen said.

Find an orthopedic surgeon

Are you looking for an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in shoulder pain and injuries? Our Banner Health surgeons use the most advanced arthroscopic and open surgical techniques available. Check out our list of orthopedic specialists at

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