Arthroscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure for the treatment and diagnosis of joint conditions. This procedure may not be suitable for people with certain conditions, such as arthritis.

Read on to learn more about arthroscopic surgery, what to expect, possible risks, and more.

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Arthroscopic surgery is a procedure that begins with the surgeon making multiple small incisions in the vicinity of a joint.

This permits the introduction of an irrigation canula, a microinstrument portal, and a device called an arthroscope into the joint space. An arthroscope is a long, thin tube that is roughly the size of a pencil.

An arthroscope has a light and a camera attached to it, which helps the surgeon better see inside the person’s joint.

Arthroscopic surgery is minimally invasive as it only requires a small incision. This means a person may have a shorter recovery time and experience less postoperative pain than with a more invasive operation.

A surgeon can use the camera on the arthroscope to get a close-up view of a person’s joint. This allows them to accurately diagnose any issues in the area.

Surgeons originally only used arthroscopic surgery as a diagnostic tool. However, medical advances allow surgeons to use this procedure to treat certain joint conditions.

Surgeons can use arthroscopic surgery to treat various conditions. According to the Arthroscopy Association of North America (AANA), these conditions include:

  • joint inflammation or infection
  • acute or chronic injury
  • damaged or torn cartilage, ligaments, or tendons
  • scarring
  • tissue overgrowth
  • bone spurs
  • loose bone fragments

Arthroscopic surgery can be beneficial for several different conditions. However, healthcare professionals do not recommend this surgery for people with certain health issues.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, current information states that people with osteoarthritis and some other degenerative knee conditions should not receive arthroscopic surgery.

Researchers have found that this type of surgery does not benefit the majority of people with osteoarthritis.

Before having arthroscopic surgery, a doctor will assess a person’s health. This helps ensure the person has no underlying conditions that may interfere with the procedure.

A person may also require imaging or blood tests.

The AANA recommends the following steps for a person preparing to have arthroscopic surgery:

  • speak with a healthcare professional about any medications or supplements they are taking
  • let the surgeon know about any allergies they have
  • keep the area that the surgeon will operate on clean and free from injury, sunburn, or infection
  • arrange for someone to pick them up after the surgery
  • avoid eating or drinking anything the morning of the surgery, unless the surgeon instructs it
  • wear loose, comfortable clothing over the area the surgeon will operate on
  • plan their journey thoroughly to arrive for surgery on time

This section looks at what to expect before, during, and after arthroscopic surgery.


An anesthesiologist may speak with the person about the anesthetic being administered for the surgery.

The type of anesthetic a person receives will depend on the type of arthroscopy a person is having, and their general health.

Possible anesthetics for arthroscopic surgery include:

  • local anesthetic, which will only numb the area being operated on
  • regional anesthetic, which numbs an area of the body, such as from the waist down
  • general anesthetic, which puts a person to sleep


During arthroscopic surgery, the surgeon will first clean the area they will operate on.

They then create multiple small incisions about the size of a buttonhole, into the affected joint. Additional incisions may be necessary to allow the surgeon to look at other parts of the joint.

Once a surgeon has used the arthroscope to diagnose the joint issue, they can begin treatment if required. A surgeon may create additional openings to insert any surgical tools necessary, such as scissors and forceps.


After the surgeon has completed the arthroscopic surgery, they may close the incisions with stitches or small adhesive strips.

The surgeon covers the operative site with sterile dressings and wraps the entire joint with a stretchy compression bandage to reduce postoperative inflammation.

Medical professionals can then move the person to a recovery room.

In the recovery room, a person may receive an ice pack to put on the surgery site. This can help reduce pain or swelling. Medical staff may also elevate the area that received the surgery, such as the leg.

A person should be able to return home the same day as their surgical procedure. However, they should not drive after surgery.

The AANA notes that complications due to arthroscopic surgery are rare. However, there are certain risks involved with this kind of surgery, such as:

  • infection
  • excessive bleeding or swelling
  • deep vein thrombosis (DTV)
  • blood clots
  • nerve damage
  • numbness or pain, which usually reduces over time

There is also a risk of instrument breakage with this surgery. Instrument breakage is when a surgeon’s tool breaks inside a person’s body. If this occurs, the surgeon will carefully remove any pieces of the instrument from the area.

If a person has diagnostic arthroscopic surgery, their surgeon may be able to diagnose their condition during the surgery. The surgeon can then discuss a person’s condition with them or let them know if they require further testing.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) states that it can take several days for a person’s incisions to heal.

Healing time for the joint can depend on the type of surgery a person received. It may take several weeks for a person to fully recover.

The AAOS notes that a person who has had knee arthroscopy should be able to do most physical activities after 6–8 weeks.

However, this may be longer for people who have had:

  • ligament reconstruction
  • meniscus repair
  • cartilage restoration

After arthroscopic surgery, a surgeon will give a person instructions on how to care for the surgery site. This can involve:

  • keeping the area clean and dry for the next 24 hours
  • using a protective dressing when taking a shower
  • avoiding soaking the area in water

A healthcare professional may give a person pain medication after surgery. If a person has had surgery on their knee or foot, they may require crutches.

A healthcare professional may provide a person with a list of exercises to help with recovery and joint function.

This section answers some commonly asked questions about arthroscopic surgery.

Is arthroscopy surgery painful?

Arthroscopic surgery itself is painless. The AAOS notes that the postoperative pain from arthroscopic surgery is minimal. However, a person may still benefit from pain medication or ice packs.

How long does an arthroscopy take?

The length of time arthroscopy takes can depend on the type of surgery.

Generally, knee arthroscopy takes less than an hour.

Arthroscopy on a person’s jaw can take between 30–120 minutes.

What is the most serious complication of arthroscopy?

Infection, excessive bleeding, and blood clots can be potentially serious complications of arthroscopy.

A person should seek immediate medical attention if they experience:

  • excessive pain, tightening, or swelling
  • bleeding that does not stop
  • increasing redness around the wound
  • pus or discharge from the area
  • heat around the incision site
  • increased pain around the wound
  • fever
  • fatigue

Arthroscopic surgery is a procedure surgeons use to diagnose and treat joint conditions.

During arthroscopy, the surgeon creates multiple small incisions in the vicinity of a joint to permit the introduction of the arthroscope and other instruments into the joint space.

Surgeons can also use arthroscopy to treat various joint conditions. However, medical professionals do not recommend it for people with osteoarthritis or certain other degenerative knee conditions.

Arthroscopic surgery is minimally invasive and can have a healing time of a few weeks. However, this can depend on the type of surgery a person has. Some forms of arthroscopy can take longer to heal than others.

Following arthroscopy, a person should follow the instructions their surgeon gives them. This can help improve recovery and joint mobility.

If a person notices any signs of serious complications after arthroscopy, such as excessive pain or fever, they should seek immediate medical attention.