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What is Elbow Replacement Surgery?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Elbow replacement surgery is considered a final option for patients who suffer from severe pain and loss of mobility in their elbow joints. It is usually effective in relieving symptoms of chronic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as acute complications of serious elbow injuries. During the procedure, damaged bone, cartilage, and ligament tissue are removed and replaced with Synthetic plastic and metal parts. With several weeks of follow-up physical therapy sessions, people who undergo elbow replacement surgery are usually able to experience close to full recoveries.

Before considering elbow replacement surgery, a doctor usually attempts to treat a patient's symptoms with medications and guided physical therapy. When nonsurgical efforts fail to repair damage to bone and cartilage, a surgical specialist can determine the best way to go about replacement surgery. The operation can be performed in several different ways, but most surgeons prefer arthroscopic surgery when possible.

During an arthroscopic procedure, the surgeon makes a series of small incisions around the base of the elbow joint. He or she inserts a tiny camera through one of the incisions and watches its progression on a monitor in the operating room. With the aid of the camera, scalpels, saws, and clamps are inserted through other cuts and used to remove small sections of joint tissue. The surgeon carefully pushes aside ligaments and nerves, and slides the artificial replacement parts into alignment. The ends of the prosthetic are secured to bone and muscle with specialized glues, stitches, and pins.

Arthroscopic surgery may not be possible if additional elbow components such as nerves and ligaments are severely damaged. Open elbow replacement surgery may be performed to give the surgeon easier access to the joint. After general anesthesia is administered, the surgeon makes a long cut along the back of the elbow and clamps skin and muscle tissue to the sides. With the internal joint exposed, the surgeon can carefully move nerves and ligaments out of the way and proceed to cut away cartilage and raze bones. A solid, hinged artificial elbow is inserted and fused to bones, and surrounding ligaments are connected with glue and sutures.

Following both types of elbow replacement surgery, a patient can expect to spend up to three days in the hospital so doctors can monitor recovery. A series of x-rays are taken to make sure the replacement joint is properly aligned and attached. The patient is usually given high-strength pain medications to ease symptoms and antibiotics to prevent infections at the site of surgical scars. He or she may be fitted with a brace or splint to wear for about four weeks. Over the course of two to six months, physical therapy sessions can help the patient regain strength and flexibility in the new elbow joint.

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