Often when the topic of surgery comes up during the discussion with my patients, the question of how big will my scar be or how many stitches will there be comes up. The pleasant surprise will then commonly be that with current technology, many sports related joint injuries can be treated via small key holes now.
Truth is “Minimally Invasive (MIS)”, “Keyhole”, “Bandaid”, “Scope” surgery is not exactly that state of the art nowadays as it has been around for almost a century now and can safely be considered to be the mainstay treatment for most sports injuries.
Arthroscopic surgery has been reported since the 1910s but the technology and application greatly took off after the invention of fibre-optic cable when images can be projected into a television monitor. This saves us from having to struggle peering through a small peephole lens. This plus high definition lenses and monitors has made doing such procedures much clearer, easier and thus safer. Afterall, a surgeon should only operate on what he/she can see clearly.
So what exactly is KeyHole surgery.
KeyHole or Arthroscopic surgery is a type of orthopedic surgery that utilizes an instrument called an arthroscope which essentially is a lens connected via fibre-optic cable to a monitor. It is so called keyhole or minimally invasive as it can be performed requiring only small incisions, usually around around ¾ of a centimeter. These incisions are called portals. The word arthroscope is from the Greek words meaning “to look at joints.” The arthroscope is made up of a lens and a light source, and is connected to a video camera. The surgeon can view the inside of the joint directly through the arthroscope, or an image may be displayed on a monitor. This image gives the surgeon a clear view of the tissue inside the joint. The surgeon can then use other tiny instruments specially designed for arthroscopic surgery to perform necessary procedures. Arthroscopic surgery can be used as a diagnostic tool, or for therapeutic procedures ranging from easing the pain of arthritis patients to mending torn ligaments. This range from shoulder stabilization, rotator cuff repair, capsular release for frozen shoulder, acromioclavicular joint reconstruction (dislocation of the outermost part of the collar bone which many cyclist suffer from after a fall), tennis elbow release, knee meniscus debridement (clean up)/ repair, ligamentous (anterior and posterior cruciate) reconstruction, hip labral debridement repair. This is on top of the diagnostic arthroscopies we do for the joints and debridement of these joints.
First I must quantify that although this technique is and can be used for many sports related injuries when all non operative options have been exhausted, it is not for every patient and every condition. In certain situations, trying to struggle through 4 to 5 small holes each around ¾ cm may cause more damage then just doing a simple mini-open procedure with a 3-4cm incision,
Nevertheless, extended exposure of joints during open surgery prolongs recovery and increases pain and risk of complications, such as infection and stiffness. Minimally invasive surgeries, in general, result in less pain and swelling after surgery than open techniques. As a result, arthroscopically treated patients tend to heal faster and begin rehabilitation earlier and, subsequently, return to normal activity and work sooner.
Technically, using a lens also allow surgeons to see certain parts of the joint that would otherwise be inaccessible through a limited mini-open incision as the lens can get into awkward corners of the joint easier.
Arthrocopic surgery has made some previously very long and arduous ones a lot more controlled and straightforward. This allow us to provide our patients a more predictable outcome in terms of results.
In some surgeries, arthroscopic techniques have become mainstays over open procedures like shoulder stabilization surgery, rotator cuff repair, acromioclavicular joint reconstructions, knee meniscus and ligamentous reconstruction. This is to an extend that the open surgery is only reserved for complex or revision (repeat) surgeries.
Another benefit of arthroscopy is that a lot of these procedures can be performed in an day surgery setting which can often reduce cost.
So what’s the down side?
As of all surgical procedures, there are risks. Like in all joint surgeries, risks include bleeding into the knee joint, damage to the cartilage, meniscus/labrum, or ligaments in the joint, blood clot in the leg (deep venous thrombosis), injury to a blood vessel or nerve, compartment syndrome when the fluid we use to pump into the joint to work (yes we work in an underwater environment) leaks into the calf area of the leg, infection in the joint and joint stiffness. Unique to arthroscopy, equipment failure accounted for a significant part of the complications. Arthroscopy is a technical procedure requiring a wide range of equipment (camera and monitor, surgical equipment, pump, tourniquet, etc.) that can malfunction or break during a procedure.
Arthroscopy, one of the greatest advances in orthopedic surgery in the 20th century, has been around for a almost a century. It offers a minimally invasive alternative to standard open surgical techniques, which often require extended incisions for adequate joint exposure to the extent that it has become the mainstay for many conditions. Decreased complications, pain, shorter recovery, and the resulting cost savings are proven advantages. Without a doubt, the advances of arthroscopic surgery will allow us to return our patients back to their peak performance a lot faster and with a lot less pain and fuss. With improvements in fibre-optics, lens and monitor technology, it will also allow surgeons to see clearer and as a result do better work for our patients, producing better results and allowing our patients not to have to live with their pain.