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What is an Arthrotomy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The medical term “arthrotomy” means “cutting into a joint.” Also known as a synosteotomy, this procedure can be performed for a variety of reasons, usually as part of a larger surgery that is intended to address a problem inside the joint or an issue with one or more of the bones which articulates at the joint. Procedures of this nature are usually performed by an orthopedic surgeon, a medical professional who specializes in surgeries involving the bones and joints.

One reason to perform these procedure is to gain access to the joint for the purpose of a joint repair or replacement surgery. Cutting into the joint may be necessary to access the surgical field and to make the interior of the joint visible to the physician. It also increases healing time, however. Historically, surgeons had to weigh the damage caused by arthrotomy with the need to access the joint when making treatment recommendations to patients.

Today, cutting into the joints is less necessary because surgeons can perform arthroscopic surgery. In this type of procedure, cameras are inserted into the joint along with tools that can be used to perform manipulations inside the joint. This allows the surgeon to work within the surgical field without having to cut the joint open to do so. Minimally invasive surgery is safer for the patient, decreases the risk of complications, and shortens healing time considerably, making it an appealing choice when it is an available option.

Cutting into a joint may also be necessary during an amputation or during exploratory surgery in which arthroscopic surgery is not an option. Arthroscopy may not be possible in some emergency situations, for example, or when a joint is badly crushed so that the surgeon cannot understand what is going on inside the surgical field without looking at it directly.

When arthrotomy is required as part of a medical procedure, the surgeon uses specialized tools that have been designed for cutting quickly and efficiently into the joints while minimizing damage. The surgeon plans out the cuts ahead of time so that when the patient is on the table, the surgeon already has a plan in mind for performing the surgery. Patients should be aware that even “routine” surgeries can have complications, and a good surgeon will discuss the potential risks of a procedure before it begins so that the patient will be prepared ahead of time.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon995589 — On May 12, 2016

This isn't athroscopic. This is something totally different.

By rjh — On May 03, 2011

@redstaR - Arthroscopic knee surgery is a type of keyhole surgery, yes. If the surgery is scheduled early in the day, your friend shouldn't have to stay overnight. That’s one of the big benefits of these new minimally invasive surgeries.

Speaking from personal experience though, they may begin the keyhole surgery and discover there's more damage than they expected and have to change to open surgery. This requires longer healing time, longer stay in the hospital, heavier painkillers, you get the picture. This happened to me when I had to get shoulder surgery. I went in expecting to get a "keyhole" sized scar and walked out with an eight inch long scar. At least it was successful!

By redstaR — On May 03, 2011

Is arthroscopic surgery the same as keyhole surgery? A friend of mine might need to get knee surgery and that's how the orthopedic surgeon he saw described it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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