What Is Arthroscopy?

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on June 30, 2023
4 min read

Arthroscopy is a surgical procedure doctors use to look at, diagnose, and treat problems inside a joint. It’s a minor surgery and is done on an outpatient basis, which means you can go home the same day. Your doctor may recommend it if you have inflammation in a joint, have injured a joint, or have damaged a joint over time.

You can have arthroscopy on any joint. Most often, it’s done on the knee, shoulder, elbow, ankle, hip, or wrist.

During the procedure, your doctor will insert a tool called an arthroscope into your joint through several small cuts to see how much damage is in the joint. They can also repair many injuries during arthroscopy.

Before having arthroscopy or any other procedure, be sure to tell your doctor about any medications or vitamins you are taking.

Leave all jewelry, watches, and other valuables at home. Wear comfortable clothing that is easy to put on and take off.

The night before arthroscopy, do not drink or eat anything unless your doctor tells you otherwise. They’ll give you some soapy sponges to use to scrub your knee or shoulder before you go in for the procedure.

Arrange to have someone drive you home afterward.

Your doctor will perform arthroscopic surgery in a hospital or outpatient operating room. The type of anesthesia you’ll receive depends on the joint and what your surgeon suspects is the problem. It may be general anesthesia (you’ll be asleep during surgery), or your doctor will give it to you through your spine. They might also numb the area they are doing the surgery on.

Your doctor will insert special pencil-thin instruments through a small cut (incision) the size of a buttonhole. The arthroscope tool they use has a camera lens and a light. It allows them to see inside the joint. The camera projects an image of the joint onto a screen. The surgeon will fill the joint with sterile fluid to widen it so it’s easier to see.

They’ll look inside the joint, diagnose the problem, and decide what type of surgery you need, if any. If you do need surgery, your surgeon will insert special tools through other small incisions called portals. They’ll use them to cut, shave, grasp, and anchor stitches into bone.

If your surgeon decides you need traditional, “open” surgery to fix the problem, they may do it at the same time as your arthroscopic surgery.

Afterward, they’ll remove the arthroscope and any attachments. They’ll close the wound with special tape or stitches.

When the arthroscopy is over, you'll be taken to a recovery room where you'll rest for about an hour or more. You may have some pain in the joint after surgery. Your doctor may prescribe pain medication and exercise. They might also prescribe aspirin or other medication to prevent blood clots.

Apply ice for the first 24 hours to reduce swelling. If you've had arthroscopy on your knee, elevate the leg to reduce pain. Take pain medicines as prescribed, and do not drink alcohol.

You may need crutches, a splint, or a sling for support as you recover.

Arthroscopic surgery usually results in less joint pain and stiffness than open surgery. Recovery also generally takes less time.

You’ll have small puncture wounds where the arthroscopic tools went into your body. The day after surgery, you may be able to remove the surgical bandages and replace them with small strips to cover the incisions. Your doctor will remove non-dissolvable stitches after a week or 2.

While your wounds heal, you’ll have to keep the site as dry as possible. This means covering them with a plastic bag when you shower.

Your doctor will tell you what activities to avoid when you go home. You can often go back to work or school within a few days of surgery. Full joint recovery typically takes several weeks. It may take several months to get back to normal.

Rehabilitation or specific exercises can help speed your recovery. Your doctor will tell you which ones are safe to do.

Complications are rare. They happen in fewer than 1 in 100 cases. If you do have complications, they can include infection, blood clots, damage to the blood vessels or nerves, and excessive bleeding or swelling. Instruments can also break during surgery.

Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Pain that gets worse
  • Severe swelling
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Discolored or smelly fluid seeping from wound