What is surgical debridement of the hand, wrist or elbow?

Many types of tissues join together at your elbow. They help this large joint perform a wide range of movements. When you make the same movements over and over, this can damage some of the thick tissues in your elbow called tendons. They can swell, form tiny tears and break down. This damage leads to a condition called tennis elbow. The main symptom is pain in your elbow, forearm and wrist. You may also have trouble holding items or turning your arm.

Resting your elbow, icing it and taking pain medications can help the condition improve. Sometimes, these treatments can't help because the tendons are too damaged. When this happens, your doctor may need to do surgical debridement. Surgical debridement is a procedure that removes (debrides) the painful, damaged areas of tendon near your elbow. The doctor cuts out the damaged tendon section and sews the remaining healthy tendon together.

What to expect from surgical debridement of the hand, wrist or elbow

Doctors often do surgical debridement as an outpatient surgery. This means you can go home the same day you have the procedure. The doctor may put you to sleep under general anesthesia. However, you might have local anesthesia instead if your elbow damage isn't too bad. The doctor may only numb your arm and give you medicines to help you forget the surgery.

During surgical debridement, the doctor makes a small cut over the outside of your elbow. This lets them access the damaged tendon. The doctor then cuts out the damaged part of the tissue. They may also remove bony growths that were causing pain. Finally, the surgeon sews the normal parts of the tendon back together. They close the surgery site with stitches. The procedure takes less than an hour.

After a few hours in the recovery room at the hospital, you can go home. Your doctor may want you to wear a splint for a few weeks. This device keeps your elbow still and helps the tendon heal well. You should avoid lifting heavy things for up to two months after surgery. 

You may need physical therapy appointments after surgery. Therapy involves gentle exercises that help your elbow heal and keep it strong. You can work with your physical therapist to figure out which exercises work well for maintaining full mobility of the joint. They may also show you how to do certain activities again without re-injuring your elbow.

Common conditions requiring surgical debridement

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is the main condition that doctors treat with surgical debridement. Playing tennis isn't the only cause of tennis elbow, however. Mechanics, chefs and plumbers do lots of movements that can lead to this condition. Activities that can cause tennis elbow include:

  • Typing
  • Raking
  • Knitting
  • Painting
  • Chopping
  • Hammering
  • Lifting weights
  • Throwing a ball
  • Lifting and carrying heavy boxes

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