Background: Although the potential complications of elbow arthroscopy, including nerve injuries, have been described, the prevalence of their occurrence has not been well defined. The purpose of this paper is to describe the serious and minor complications in a large series of patients treated with elbow arthroscopy.
Methods: A retrospective review of 473 consecutive elbow arthroscopies performed in 449 patients over an eighteen-year period was conducted. Of the 473 cases, 414 were followed for more than six weeks. The most common final diagnoses were osteoarthritis (150 cases), loose bodies (112), and rheumatoid or inflammatory arthritis (seventy-five). The arthroscopic procedures included synovectomy (184), débridement of joint surfaces or adhesions (180), excision of osteophytes (164), diagnostic arthroscopy (154), loose-body removal (144), and capsular procedures such as capsular release, capsulotomy, and capsulectomy (seventy-three).
Results: A serious complication (a joint space infection) occurred after four (0.8%) of the arthroscopic procedures. Minor complications occurred after fifty (11%) of the arthroscopic procedures. These complications included prolonged drainage from or superficial infection at a portal site after thirty-three procedures, persistent minor contracture of 20° or less after seven, and twelve transient nerve palsies (five ulnar palsies, four superficial radial palsies, one posterior interosseous palsy, one medial antebrachial cutaneous palsy, and one anterior interosseous palsy) in ten patients. The most significant risk factors for the development of a temporary nerve palsy were an underlying diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (p < 0.001) and a contracture (p < 0.05). There were no permanent neurovascular injuries, hematomas, or compartment syndromes in our series, and all of the minor complications, except for the minor contractures, resolved without sequelae.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that the prevalence of temporary or minor complications following elbow arthroscopy may be greater than previously reported. However, serious or permanent complications were uncommon.