Harvard Health Letter

Arthroscopic shoulder surgery

When the minimally invasive procedure is warranted.

Arthroscopy is a popular technique for shoulder surgery because it involves a small incision. While it used to be the case that surgeons could see the shoulder tissues better with traditional open (large-incision) surgery, that has changed. "Our techniques have advanced to the point where sometimes we can see what's happening better with the scope than with open surgery," says Dr. Eric Berkson, director of the Sports Performance Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. But when your surgeon will use arthroscopy depends on the particular condition that requires surgery.

The surgery

With arthroscopy, the surgeon makes a small incision and inserts long, thin surgical instruments—including one with a video camera that provides the inside view. "Because you can see better with arthroscopy, you can accomplish a repair without risking damage to the nearby deltoid muscle," says Dr. Berkson. "That cuts down on complications."

Traditional benefits of minimally invasive surgery are smaller incisions and faster recovery times than open surgery. But shoulder arthroscopy is different. The incisions may heal faster, but Dr. Berkson says there's not much difference in the total time for recovery. "It's the same as open surgery because the work being done on the inside is the same," he explains.

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