Arthrofibrosis is a problem in which abnormal scar tissue forms within the knee.
It usually occurs in post-traumatic and post-surgical settings and can manifest itself in many different ways. The severity can range from small amounts of scar tissue in certain locations within the knee that may only cause symptoms with certain activities to diffuse scarring that is chronically painful and completely restricts all motion of the knee.
Non-operative measures such as rest, ice, anti-inflammatory agents, and subsequent physical therapy are the usual first lines of treatment. When these measures are unsuccessful, surgery may be indicated. Historically, forceful manipulation of the knee by the surgeon has been used to break up the scar tissue. In my opinion, there are now better treatment techniques available, particularly since manipulation has significant risks of complication such as fracture of the bone, rupture of tendons, and injury to the cartilage.
It is my preference to release the scar tissue in arthrofibrosis using specific surgical methods, as surgery is generally more precise and safer. In most instances, the surgery can be performed using a minimally-invasive arthroscopic approach. Arthroscopy is a technique in which a camera and small instruments are placed into the knee through small holes (portals). While this type of surgery has significant advantages (less pain, less scarring, better visualization), it does, in cases of arthrofibrosis, require an experienced knee surgeon with advanced surgical skills, primarily because of the altered tissue planes and scarring which distort the normal anatomy. Arthroscopic surgical release and excision of scar tissue does provide a powerful and effective method for treating individuals with arthrofibrosis. Furthermore, it can be used to treat both focal areas of scar tissue as well as more global or generalized arthrofibrosis.
After surgery, patients are typically hospitalized for 48 hours to control pain and to initiate the rehabilitation. Appropriate rehabilitation is essential to success. Motion machines and manual stretching by skilled physical therapists are key components in the early hours and days after surgery. Dynamic bracing can also be used to help maintain extension of the knee. The knee cap (patella) and all the tendons to which it attaches must be kept mobile and supple. After discharge from the hospital, daily outpatient physical therapy visits start and may continue for 6 to 8 weeks.
Arthrofibrosis usually restricts knee motion and causes pain, and it invariably poses a very difficult clinical problem to treat. Early recognition and appropriate treatment can be expected to restore motion and improve function in the majority of individuals who develop this problem. Whenever possible, it is important to identify the specific cause and target the treatment accordingly.
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