Arthroscopy is a surgical procedure that allows your doctor to look at the inside of a joint in your body through a thin viewing instrument called an arthroscope. Arthroscopy allows your doctor to look at the joint surfaces and the surrounding soft tissues, such as tissue that connects bone to bone (ligaments) and the tough tissue that covers the ends of the bones at the joints (cartilage) and provides a cushion between the bones. This procedure can be used to diagnose a joint problem, perform surgery that repairs a joint problem, remove a loose or foreign body, or monitor a disease or the effectiveness of a treatment. Arthroscopy is commonly performed on the knee, shoulder, and ankle. It also can be done on the hip, elbow, and wrist.

During arthroscopy, the arthroscope is inserted into your joint through a small cut (incision) in the skin. The arthroscope has a light source and a video camera attached to it. Images from the camera can be seen on a video monitor. These magnified images provide a clear picture of your joint. A sample of joint tissue can be collected during arthroscopy for biopsy. If surgery is done, additional instruments will be inserted into your joint through other small incisions.

Like open surgery (which is done using a larger incision), arthroscopy allows your doctor to see what is wrong with your joint. But compared to open surgery, arthroscopy:

  • Is usually less painful.
  • Is usually less costly.
  • Usually allows for a quicker recovery time, depending on what is done.
  • Can be done on an outpatient basis without requiring an overnight stay in a hospital. Open surgery often requires an inpatient stay in the hospital.

Why It Is Done

Arthroscopy is used to:

  • Evaluate and diagnose a joint problem when a physical exam and other diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, blood tests, computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are not conclusive.
  • Perform surgery to repair a joint problem.

Examples of when arthroscopy is used to perform surgery:

  • Bone tissue can be shaved to remove calcium deposits or bone spurs.
  • Soft tissues (such as ligaments, tendons, or cartilage) can be repaired or trimmed.
  • Ligaments can be cut, repaired, or reconstructed.
  • Cutting or releasing a tight ligament may allow increased range of motion for a stiff joint.
  • A sample of joint tissue or joint fluid (synovial fluid) may be collected for laboratory analysis (biopsy).
  • Scar tissue or an area of joint lining (synovium) that is inflamed can be removed.

Some joint problems may sometimes be repaired using a combination of arthroscopy and open surgery.