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Key facts

  • An arthroscopy is a procedure used to diagnose and treat some joint problems.
  • An instrument called an arthroscope (a small, fibre-optic video camera attached to a narrow tube) is used to look inside your joint.
  • Arthroscopy can be used to help diagnose a problem in a joint or help guide surgical repair of a joint problem.

What is an arthroscopy?

An arthroscopy is a procedure used to diagnose and treat some joint problems.

When you have an arthroscopy, an instrument called an arthroscope is used to look inside your joint. An arthroscope is a small, fibre-optic video camera attached to a narrow tube.

Illustration of an arthroscopy
During an arthroscopy a surgeon uses an arthroscope to see inside the joint.

When may an arthroscopy be needed?

An arthroscopy can be done to help diagnose a problem in a joint. It can also help guide surgical repair of a joint problem.

This type of ‘keyhole surgery’ is done with narrow, pencil-shaped surgical instruments.

Arthroscopy can be done on many parts of your body:

In the knee, arthroscopy may be used for conditions such as:

  • some meniscal (cartilage) tears
  • some ligament injuries
  • loose bodies of bone and cartilage inside the joint

Is arthroscopy recommended for knee osteoarthritis?

In Australia, arthroscopy is not recommended for the initial treatment of uncomplicated osteoarthritis of the knee. It is not an effective treatment for pain in people with knee osteoarthritis.

How to prepare for an arthroscopy

Before an arthroscopy, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your joint. They may also ask for:

Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of arthroscopy for your condition.

Before agreeing to arthroscopic surgery, ask if there are other suitable treatment options, such as:

What happens during an arthroscopy?

An arthroscopy is often done as day surgery. Depending on the joint involved and your health, you may have a:

Your surgeon will make a tiny cut near your joint and insert the arthroscope. The images from inside your joint will be shown on a video monitor. The surgeon might be able to see what is causing your problem.

If surgery is needed, your surgeon may make a few more narrow cuts and insert surgical instruments.

Examples of arthroscopic surgery include:

After surgery, your wounds will be stitched or closed with special tape and then bandaged.

Recovering from an arthroscopy

Recovery from arthroscopic surgery is usually faster than open surgery.

You may have some pain, swelling, bruising and stiffness after the surgery. You can take pain-relief medicines to help ease pain and discomfort.

You might also be advised to:

  • keep the affected joint raised
  • apply ice packs to reduce swelling
  • wear a pressure stocking
  • use a splint, supportive brace or crutches
  • do special exercises or physiotherapy to strengthen your muscles and prevent joint stiffness

You might need to have a few days or a week off before returning to work or school. Your doctor will talk with you about managing your wound dressings.

Recovery will depend on your condition and the procedure performed. Ask your doctor about what to expect in your situation.

Possible risks or complications

Any type of surgery has some risks. While most arthroscopies go smoothly, possible complications can include:

  • infection
  • a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot), usually in the leg
  • bleeding inside your joint
  • nerve damage or numbness
  • ongoing pain

Contact your doctor immediately if you have:

  • high fever
  • severe pain
  • redness or excess swelling around the wounds
  • numbness
  • bad smelling fluid leaking from the incisions

Resources and support

Read more about preparing for surgery here.

If you want to know more about arthroscopy, you can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2023

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