What Is Arthroscopy?

Arthroscopy is a surgical procedure doctors use to look at, diagnose, and treat problems inside a joint.

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.

What Happens During the Procedure?

Your doctor will perform arthroscopic surgery in a hospital or outpatient operating room. That means you can go home the same day. 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. He might also numb the area he’s doing the surgery on.

Your doctor will insert special pencil-thin instruments through a small cut (incision) the size of a buttonhole. He’ll use a tool called an arthroscope that has a camera lens and a light. It allows him 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.

He’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. He’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, he may do it at the same time as your arthroscopic surgery.

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

What About Recovery?

You may have some pain in the joint after surgery. Your doctor may prescribe pain medication. He might also prescribe aspirin or other medication to prevent blood clots.

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

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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 be back to normal.

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

When to Call the Doctor

Complications are rare. They happen in fewer than one 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
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Arthroscopy,” “Knee Arthroscopy.”

National Health Service (UK): “Arthroscopy -- Recovery.” “Arthroscopy -- How It’s Performed.”

The Journal of Family Practice: “Arthroscopic surgery for knee osteoarthritis? Just say no.”

British Medical Journal: “Arthroscopic surgery for degenerative knee: systematic review and meta-analysis of benefits and harms.”

The New England Journal of Medicine: “A Controlled Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee,” “A Randomized Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee.”

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