Overview of Arthroscopy Surgery

Arthroscopy, or arthroscopic surgery, is an orthopedic procedure that examines the joints of the body.

It is commonly referred to as a “scope," as in “I’m going to have my knee scoped.”


Arthroscopy Surgery

Lateral view of arthroscopic surgical repair on the shoulder joint

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Instead of using a large incision to inspect the damage to a joint, the procedure uses tiny incisions into which a small camera (arthroscope) is inserted. The surgeon can then inspect the joint and take photos or samples of the tissue there to determine the extent or type of damage that is occurring.

This procedure may be used along with additional surgical techniques. For example, if the surgeon performs arthroscopy on a shoulder joint and determines that the rotator cuff has been torn, a rotator cuff repair may be added to the surgery.

One of the benefits of this minimally invasive approach is that this surgery is typically done on an outpatient basis, with the patient returning home the same day. Recovery is usually quicker than with comparable procedures performed “open” with a much larger incision.


Why Is Arthroscopy Necessary?

Physical therapist massaging patient knee in examination room

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Arthroscopic surgery is used to examine the joints of the body to determine either the cause of joint damage or the extent of the damage. The surgery is performed if physicians are unable to determine the source of the joint problem. For example, if it suspected that the joint is damaged but other diagnostic testing such as x-rays, CT scans or MRI are unable to determine the nature of the damage, an arthroscopy may be done to make a diagnosis.

A biopsy, the taking of a piece of tissue for examination, can also be performed during arthroscopy. This tissue can be used to make a diagnosis when the tissue is examined under a microscope. Fluid from the joint may also be sampled during the procedure, usually to determine the nature of any infection that may be present.

Current research indicates that arthroscopy of the knee may not be helpful for patients with arthritis, but the determination to have the procedure should be made on a case by case basis in consultation with your surgeon.

Joints Commonly Examined With Arthroscopy

  • Knee
  • Ankle
  • Hip
  • Elbow
  • Wrist
  • Shoulder

The Risks of an Arthroscopy Surgery

Anesthesiologist at work

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In addition to the general risks associated with surgery and the risks of anesthesia, arthroscopy has its own risks, such as a slight risk of joint damage during the procedure, as well as damage to the arteries and veins around the joint.

In procedures being performed below the waist, there is a risk of blood clots known as deep vein thrombosis or DVT. The risk of infection is present during the procedure, but the risk is less than with traditional procedures with a full-sized incision.


The Surgical Procedure

Arthroscopic surgery

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An arthroscopy joint procedure is typically done with local, regional or general anesthesia.

In most cases, the surgery is performed as an outpatient procedure where the patient goes home the same day. The type of anesthesia used depends upon the damage the surgeon expects to find and the type of procedures the surgeon expects to perform.

Once the anesthesia takes effect, the surgeon starts by making small incisions approximately 1 to 2 centimeters long near the joint. This will be repeated as needed to allow the surgeon to completely visualize the damaged joint.

Instruments are inserted into the incisions, including a tiny camera. The surgeon visualizes the joint on a television screen, rather than looking through the incision. One of the incisions is then used to gently flush the joint with fluid. This expands the tissue around the joint, making more room for the surgeon and improving the images sent by the camera.

The surgeon then looks for any damage or the source of pain, looking for problems with the bone, ligaments, tendons and surrounding tissues. If bone chips or foreign material are found, they are removed. If necessary, biopsies of tissue and fluid samples can be taken.

Having inspected the joint and taken needed tissue samples, the arthroscopy portion of the procedures is finished. In many cases, however, additional surgery will be done to fix whatever problem has been found.

If additional surgery is not needed, the instruments are withdrawn from the joint and the incisions are closed with staples, sutures, steri-strips or surgical glue, depending on the surgeon’s preference and the location of the surgery.

The anesthesia will be stopped and medication given to help you wake. You will be taken to the recovery area to be closely monitored while the rest of the anesthesia wears off.


Recovering After Arthroscopic Surgery

Close-Up Of Bed

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After your arthroscopy surgery is complete, you will be taken to the recovery room to be monitored while the anesthesia wears off. You may be given pain medication at this time. Once you are awake and alert, you should be able to go home (if your surgery was planned as an outpatient procedure). You will need to arrange for someone to drive you home, as you will not be able to drive yourself after having anesthesia.

If necessary, an immobilizing device will be used to protect the joint and prevent any bending or movement during the healing process. For example, a shoulder sling or a knee brace may be in place when you wake from your arthroscopy. You may also be given crutches or a cane to use to prevent you from putting too much pressure on the joint after surgery.

Once you are home, you will need to check your incision for signs of infection and perform incision care. If you do find that your incision shows signs of infection you will need to notify your surgeon. You will also want to notify your surgeon if you notice any unexplained swelling, as this could indicate a blood clot is present.

Your surgeon should provide specific instructions regarding an acceptable level of activity in the days following surgery. You may be told to use the joint as little as possible or your surgeon may request that you begin physical therapy to rehabilitate the joint right away.

The length of time required to recover will vary based upon your surgery and the extent of your injury. A straightforward arthroscopy can require a recovery of as little as two weeks, but if the procedure is paired with ligament repair or another more involved surgery, your recovery may be significantly longer.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. de Sa D, Lian J, Sheean AJ, et al. A systematic summary of systematic reviews on the topic of hip arthroscopic surgery. Orthop J Sports Med. 2018;6(9):2325967118796222. doi:10.1177/2325967118796222

  2. Kiadaliri A, Bergkvist D, Dahlberg LE, Englund M. Impact of a national guideline on use of knee arthroscopy: An interrupted time-series analysis. Int J Qual Health Care. 2019;31(9):G113-G118. doi:10.1093/intqhc/mzz089

  3. Enríquez-Vega ME, Cruz-Castillo JE, Pacheco-Pittaluga E, Solorio-Rosette H, Linarte-Márquez L, Iturburu-Enríquez A. Lesión vascular, complicación de la cirugía artroscópica de rodilla. Reporte de dos casos y revisión de la bibliografía [Vascular injury as a complication of knee arthroscopic surgery. Report of two cases and review of the literature]Cir Cir. 2013;81(5):454-458.

  4. Chen D, Li Q, Rong Z, et al. Incidence and risk factors of deep venous thrombosis following arthroscopic posterior cruciate ligament reconstructionMedicine (Baltimore). 2017;96(22):e7074. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000007074

  5. Weber SC, Abrams JS, Nottage WM. Complications associated with arthroscopic shoulder surgeryArthroscopy. 2002;18(2 Suppl 1):88-95. doi:10.1053/jars.2002.31801

Additional Reading
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By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.