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Arthroscopy is a medical procedure used to diagnose and treat problems with your large joints, such as the knees or shoulders.

After making a small incision, your doctor can access the inside of your joint using tiny tubes and cameras. This procedure allows a surgeon to simply view the joint, or to make repairs within it.

It is used when you have a persistent or serious problem with one of your joints.

Why Arthroscopy Is Done

Arthroscopy is often used for problems involving the:

  • ankle
  • elbow
  • hip
  • knee
  • shoulder
  • wrist

A radiograph (X-ray) or other imaging scan is typically done before the arthroscopy. When these methods are not helpful enough, or if the problems don’t show up clearly, your doctor may decide to do an arthroscopy.

According to the Mayo Clinic, arthroscopic surgery can treat the following conditions (Mayo Clinic):

  • bone spurs
  • damaged cartilage
  • inflamed joint linings
  • joint infections
  • loose bone fragments
  • torn tendons or ligaments
  • scar tissue
  • an overgrowth of tissue within joints

How to Prepare for Arthroscopy

Before your procedure, your doctor will perform a complete medical history and physical examination. This is when you should tell your doctor about any medications you may be taking, including over-the-counter drugs and nutritional supplements.

Arthroscopy uses varying levels of anesthesia, depending on your individual case. You might simply be given an injection at the site of the incision, or you may be placed under general anesthesia so you’ll be asleep for the procedure. Some types of anesthesia require you to fast for a certain period of time beforehand, so be sure to ask your doctor and follow his or her instructions.

Also, you should make arrangements for someone to give you a ride home from the hospital, as you might feel slight after-effects from the anesthesia.

How Arthroscopy Is Performed

Before surgery, you will be given some form of anesthesia so you should not feel any pain during the test.

The surgeon may make two or three small incisions around your joint. A saline (salt-water) solution will be injected into the joint. This will cause it to expand so that the tools can work more freely.

Your surgeon will slide a narrow tube with a small camera at the end inside your joint. This tool helps your doctor see inside the joint. The camera is attached to a video monitor which will be displayed in the room.

If your surgeon discovers the problem with your joint and can fix it immediately, he or she may do so. Otherwise, he or she might just gather images to help make treatment decisions later.

After the procedure, the saline solution will be drained, the incision wounds will be stitched up, and the joint will be wrapped in dressing. The whole test should take no more than 30 minutes to two hours.

After Arthroscopy

Depending on the area of the arthroscopy, you may need to wear a brace after the procedure, or use a sling or crutches. You should only need this support for a few weeks—or you may not need it at all. Your doctor will give you specific instructions based on your situation.

In the same way, your recovery period from the procedure depends on the type of arthroscopy performed. For example, the recovery time from diagnostic arthroscopy (where the surgeon just examines your joint) will be shorter than one in which surgery was performed to repair a problem.

In all procedures, you’ll have to care for the incision wound. This involves keeping it clean and dry, and regularly changing bandages until the stitches are removed.

You will be advised to avoid any strenuous activity in the days following the procedure. You should be sure to rest, put ice and compresses on your injury, and elevate it if necessary. You may also be given physical therapy exercises to do.

For all cases, follow your doctor’s instructions and be sure to bring up any problems or concerns during your follow-up appointments.

The Risks of Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy is a low-risk procedure. However, as with any medical operation, there are risks of bleeding, infection, allergic reaction to anesthesia, and other complications.

Arthroscopy specifically carries these risks:

  • bleeding inside the joint
  • blood clot
  • damage to ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissue
  • infection
  • stiffness of the joint
  • tissue damage

If you have pain, redness, swelling, numbing, a fever above 100°F, or discharge from the incision site, you should contact your doctor.

With proper care, you should feel better and be able to resume your normal activities within four weeks or sooner.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Brian Krans
Medically reviewed : Peter Rudd, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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