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Shoulder arthroscopy


Expert reviewer, Mr Henry Maxwell, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
Next review due May 2023

Shoulder arthroscopy is a type of keyhole surgery used to diagnose and treat problems inside your shoulder. It’s carried out through small cuts in your skin. Your surgeon uses a tiny camera to look inside your shoulder joint to diagnose problems and guide the repair of any damage.

Your doctor may suggest a shoulder arthroscopy if you have damage from an injury, arthritis or certain other health conditions.

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Preparing for shoulder arthroscopy

Your surgeon will explain how to prepare for your procedure. If you smoke, for example, you will be asked to stop. Smoking increases your risk of getting a chest or wound infection, which can slow down your recovery. It can also make your surgery less effective and lead to complications.

Shoulder arthroscopy is usually done as a day-case procedure in a hospital. This means you have the procedure and go home on the same day.

You will usually have a general anaesthetic for a shoulder arthroscopy. This means you’ll be asleep during the operation. Sometimes, your surgeon may use a combination of both local and general anaesthetics. You have the procedure under general anaesthetic, but your surgeon injects a local anaesthetic before you wake up, to help control pain in your shoulder afterwards.

If you can’t have a general anaesthetic for any reason, your surgeon may be able to do your arthroscopy using a nerve block. This means having an injection of local anaesthetic around the nerves that control the shoulder. It makes your arm completely numb. You won’t feel anything during the procedure but you will be awake. Ask your surgeon if you would like something to make you drowsy and help you relax.

If you're having a general anaesthetic, you’ll be given instructions about not eating or drinking for a certain number of hours before your surgery. This is for your own safety while you’re under anaesthetic so it’s important to follow your anaesthetist’s advice.

Your surgeon will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, including any pain you might have. If you’re unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s important that you feel fully informed so you feel happy to give your consent for the procedure to go ahead. Your surgeon will ask you to do this by signing a consent form.

What happens during shoulder arthroscopy?

You may have the surgery sitting in a ‘deckchair’ position or lying on your side.

Once the anaesthetic has worked, your surgeon will make small cuts in the skin around your shoulder joint. They’ll then put the arthroscope in through one of these. This contains a tiny camera that your surgeon can use to look inside your shoulder joint. They may inject some saline (salt water) into your joint to help them get a clearer look.

Your surgeon will examine your shoulder joint by looking at images from the camera on a monitor. If there’s any damage in your shoulder, they’ll use surgical instruments to repair it. Your surgeon will also remove any damaged tissue that stops you moving your shoulder properly and causes pain.

Afterwards, your surgeon will close the cuts with stitches or adhesive strips. They’ll then wrap a dressing and a bandage around your shoulder.

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What to expect afterwards

You’ll need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have worn off. You may have some discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off. Do tell your nurse so that you can have the pain relief you need.

You’ll usually be able to go home when you feel ready. You'll need to arrange for someone to drive you home. If you live alone, you must have a responsible adult to stay with you for the first 24 hours.

Having a general anaesthetic or sedative affects everyone differently. You may find that you’re not so coordinated or that it’s difficult to think clearly. This should pass within 24 hours. In the meantime, don’t drive, drink alcohol, operate machinery or sign anything important. Always follow your surgeon’s advice.

Your nurse will give you some advice about caring for your wounds before you go home. They should explain about how and when the stitches will be removed if they need to be. This would usually happen around 10 to 14 days after the operation, and you’ll be told who will do this. You may also be given a date for a follow-up appointment with your surgeon.

Recovering from shoulder arthroscopy

If you had a local anaesthetic injection, it may be up to 48 hours before the feeling comes back completely into your shoulder. You may not be fully aware where your arm is, so take special care not to injure it. You may be advised to keep your arm in a sling after the operation. This will keep your shoulder in the correct position to recover properly and protect it from further damage. Your surgeon will tell you how long you need to wear a sling for.

Your shoulder joint is likely to feel sore and stiff after surgery. Some people find lying down at night pulls their shoulder and is uncomfortable. You may find it more comfortable to sleep propped up at first, either in bed or in a reclining chair.

You may struggle to dress and wash yourself at first – you may want to ask your partner, a relative or friend to be on hand to help you. The first few weeks will be the most difficult – it should start to get easier after this.

You might have some pain or discomfort for several weeks after your shoulder arthroscopy. You may be given some painkillers to take home when you leave hospital. Or you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. Applying a cold compress such as an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel may help to reduce swelling and bruising. But don’t apply ice directly to your bare shoulder as it can damage your skin.

Your physiotherapist will recommend some exercises for you and advise you when to start doing them. Doing these regularly will help your shoulder to heal and may help you to recover more quickly.

Depending on what was involved in your procedure, it can take several weeks to several months to recover from shoulder arthroscopy. Most people regain full movement of their shoulder afterwards, but this can take several months. Ask your surgeon if you have any queries about re-starting specific activities, and always follow their advice.

For information about driving after a shoulder arthroscopy, see our FAQ about driving below.

Side-effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects that you may have after a procedure. Some specific side-effects of shoulder arthroscopy are:

  • small scars on your shoulder, where the surgeon made the small cuts to put in the camera and instruments
  • pain and stiffness around your shoulder

How long pain and stiffness will take to go is very individual. Your exercises will help you to regain movement, strengthen your shoulder and get rid of stiffness. You can help yourself recover by doing these as often as your doctor or physiotherapist has recommended.

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after a procedure. Most people who have a shoulder arthroscopy don’t get any problems, but all procedures carry some risk.

Complications of arthroscopy include:

  • an infection
  • excessive bleeding into your joint
  • damage to surrounding blood vessels or nerves
  • getting a blood clot in one of your leg veins (deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

How these risks apply to you will be different from how they apply to others. You can ask your surgeon what the risks might be for you in your particular circumstances.

What are the alternatives to shoulder arthroscopy?

Shoulder arthroscopy may be used to diagnose shoulder problems, or to treat them.

Diagnosis

Not everyone who has a problem with their shoulder will need to have an arthroscopy. Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose your shoulder problem by examining you. You may also need to have some imaging tests, such as an X-ray, an ultrasound or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Treatment

The best treatment for your shoulder problem will depend on:

  • how much damage there is to your shoulder
  • how long your shoulder has been troublesome
  • how much it affects you day-to-day

Sometimes, your symptoms will improve on their own without any surgical treatment. Your doctor may suggest ice packs and anti-inflammatory medicines, as well as stretching exercises. Once you are able to move your shoulder again without pain, you can start exercises to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder. This is usually around four weeks later. Your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist for help with the exercises. Another treatment that can be helpful for shoulder problems is a steroid injection. Talk to your doctor about which treatment options are the right ones for you.

Frequently asked questions

  • If you smoke, your surgeon is likely to ask you to stop smoking before your operation. Smoking can slow down your recovery because it increases your risk of getting a chest or wound infection. Smoking can also increase the risk that the shoulder arthroscopy won’t work and that you’ll need to have the surgery again.

    Being very overweight may mean that you don’t recover as well from your arthroscopy. So, your surgeon may recommend that you try to lose any excess weight before your operation. It’s very important to do the exercises your surgeon or physiotherapist shows you after your operation. These will improve the strength and movement of your shoulder. This may help to speed up your recovery and help you to return to work and get back to normal activities more quickly.

  • The benefits to you of arthroscopy over open surgery can include the following.

    • A shorter stay in hospital.
    • Less pain after your procedure.
    • Easier movement of your shoulder soon after surgery, letting you start your exercises sooner.
    • Smaller cuts, so smaller scars when your skin has healed.

    Arthroscopy might also allow your surgeon to see more parts of the inside of your shoulder joint than they would with a single, larger cut. This might help them to assess what the problem is, and give the correct treatment.

    Arthroscopy can work as well as open surgery in treating shoulder injuries. But some shoulder conditions are not suitable for arthroscopic surgery. Ask your surgeon to explain which type of procedure would be best for you, in your particular circumstances.
  • Your recovery time will depend on the severity of your shoulder problems and the nature of the surgery carried out on your shoulder joint.

    It’s important to remember that everyone is different. The fitter you are before your surgery, the more quickly you’re likely to recover afterwards. Not surprisingly, it will also depend on the type of work you do. If you’ve had a minor repair, and your work isn’t physically demanding, you may be able to go back to work within days. If you do very physical work and you’ve had a major repair, it could be months.

    It’s best to discuss this with your surgeon before you have your operation. Then you can make any plans you need to about your return to work.

    Make sure you do all the exercises that your surgeon and physiotherapist have given you. These exercises are important to help you get back to work and make a full recovery.

  • The Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) gives no specific instructions about driving after a shoulder arthroscopy. You don’t have to inform them that you’ve had an operation unless it’s likely to affect your ability to drive for more than three months.

    But you must not drive until you feel completely safe to do so. You’re legally responsible for ensuring that you’re fit to drive. Your driving after shoulder arthroscopy will be affected by temporary muscle weakness, pain and stiffness in the affected shoulder. You may notice this particularly if you have a manual car, especially if the operation was on your left shoulder. It may take some time before your shoulder recovers sufficiently to feel safe driving – perhaps weeks or months.

    If you’re taking painkillers, you shouldn’t drive if they make you drowsy, or stop you thinking clearly.

    So, if you’re going to have a shoulder arthroscopy, plan ahead for a period without being able to drive. And talk to your doctor about when you are safe to be back behind the wheel.



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Related information

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    • Assessing fitness to drive – a guide for medical professionals. Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. gov.uk, published February 2020
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    • Personal communication, Mr Henry Maxwell, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, May 2020
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2020
    Expert reviewer, Mr Henry Maxwell, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
    Next review due May 2023

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