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What is an arthroscopy?

Arthroscopy is a form of surgery used to diagnose and treat joint problems.

Why have an arthroscopy?

An arthroscopy is done when a doctor wants to inspect the inside of a joint. They use an instrument called an arthroscope. This is a small, fibre-optic video camera attached to a narrow tube. The arthroscope can take live images inside the joint.

Arthroscopy can be used to help diagnose a problem in a joint, and can also help guide surgical repair of a joint problem. The surgery is done with narrow, pencil-shaped surgical implements, which cause less damage than open surgery.

Arthroscopy is most commonly used at the:

In the knee, arthroscopy is commonly used for conditions such as meniscal (cartilage) tears, ligament injuries or loose bodies inside the joint.

The Australian Government and most orthopaedic surgeons recommend against using arthroscopy for osteoarthritis of the knee. Research shows that doing an arthroscopy for this condition is not effective. Arthroscopy should only be used for this condition if other treatments fail, such as losing weight, exercising and taking pain relievers.

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

How to prepare for the procedure

Ask your doctor about the benefits and risks of arthroscopy for your condition. Before agreeing to the surgery, ask if there is another option, such as:

  • losing weight
  • pain relief
  • anti-inflammatory medication
  • exercise
  • physiotherapy

Before an arthroscopy, the doctor will examine the joint and might ask for x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other scans, plus blood or other tests.

If you choose to go ahead with surgery, you might be asked to quit smoking (if you smoke) and lose weight (if you’re overweight). You may also need to stop some of your medications, but don't stop taking any medicines without talking to your doctor first.

Read more about preparing for surgery here.

What happens during an arthroscopy?

Arthroscopy is often done as day surgery. Depending on the joint involved and your health, you might have some form of local anaesthetic, or perhaps a general anaesthetic.

The surgeon will make a tiny cut near the joint and insert the arthroscope. The images taken 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, the surgeon may make a few more narrow cuts and insert surgical instruments to fix particular types of joint problem. Examples of surgery done during arthroscopies include:

  • reconstructing a torn ligament in the knee
  • treating tennis elbow
  • fixing a recurring shoulder dislocation

After the surgery, the wounds will be stitched or closed with special tape and then bandaged. The procedure usually takes between 30 minutes and 2 hours. 

What to expect after an arthroscopy

You will have some pain, swelling, bruising and stiffness after the surgery. You can take pain medication to help ease it.

You might also need to:

  • raise the part of the body that had the arthroscopy
  • apply ice packs to reduce swelling
  • use a splint, supportive brace or crutches
  • do special exercises or physiotherapy to strengthen your muscles and prevent joint stiffness

You might need to take a few days or a week off before you can return to work or school. 

You will be asked to avoid vigorous activity for the first few weeks. It can take weeks or months before the joint feels normal.

What can go wrong

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

  • infection
  • blood clots
  • bleeding inside the 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

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

Last reviewed: April 2021

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