Knee Arthroscopy

Written by Mary Ellen Ellis | Published on July 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Knee Arthroscopy?

Knee arthroscopy is a technique used to diagnose and treat problems in the knee joint. During the procedure, your surgeon will make a very small incision and insert a tiny camera—called an arthroscope—into your knee. This allows him or her to view the inside of the joint on a screen. The surgeon can then investigate a problem with the knee and, if necessary, correct the issue using small instruments within the arthroscope.

Arthroscopy is used to diagnose several knee problems, such as a torn meniscus or a misaligned patella (kneecap), or to repair the ligaments of the joint. There are limited risks to the procedure and the outlook is good for most patients. Your recovery time and prognosis will depend on the severity of the knee problem and the complexity of the required procedure.

Reasons for a Knee Arthroscopy

Your doctor may recommend that you undergo a knee arthroscopy if you are experiencing knee pain. Your doctor might already know what condition is causing your pain, or he or she may order the arthroscopy to help find a diagnosis. In either case, an arthroscope is a useful way for doctors to confirm the source of knee pain and treat the problem.

Knee injuries that can be diagnosed and corrected with arthroscopic surgery include:

  • torn anterior or posterior cruciate ligaments
  • torn meniscus (the cartilage between the bones in the knee)
  • a patella that is out of position
  • pieces of torn cartilage that are loose in the joint
  • removal of a Baker’s cyst (a cyst that may develop behind the knee)
  • fractures in the knee bones
  • swollen synovium (the lining in the joint)

What Happens During a Knee Arthroscopy?

To perform a knee arthroscopy, you will first be given an anesthetic. This may be:

  • local, which numbs your knee only
  • regional, which numbs you from the waist down
  • general, which puts you completely to sleep

If you are awake, you may be able to watch the procedure on a monitor.

The surgeon will begin by making a few small incisions, or cuts, in your knee. Sterile salt water will then be pumped in to expand your knee. This makes it easier for the surgeon to see inside the joint. The arthroscope will be inserted into one of the cuts and the surgeon will look around in your joint using the attached camera. The images produced by the camera will be shown on the monitor in the operating room.

When the surgeon has located the problem in your knee, he or she may then insert small tools into the incisions to correct the issue. Once the surgery is completed, the saline will be drained from your joint and your cuts will be closed with stitches.

How to Prepare for a Knee Arthroscopy

Your doctor or surgeon will advise you how to prepare for your surgery. Be sure to tell him or her about any medications, over-the-counter prescriptions, or supplements that you are currently taking. You may be asked to stop taking certain medicines, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, for weeks or days before the procedure.

You will also be asked to refrain from eating or drinking up to six to 12 hours before the surgery. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe you a pain medication for any discomfort you experience after the surgery. You should fill this prescription ahead of time so that you will have it ready after the procedure.

Benefits of a Knee Arthroscopy

Knee arthroscopy is a minimally invasive procedure that is a reliable way to diagnose and correct knee problems. The primary benefit is that you can have a pain-free life with full knee mobility after getting the procedure.

Risks of a Knee Arthroscopy

There are risks associated with any type of surgery. Occurrences, however, are rare. Every surgery has the following risks:

  • excessive bleeding during the procedure
  • infection at the site of the surgery
  • breathing difficulties caused by anesthesia
  • allergic reaction to anesthesia or other medications administered during surgery

There are also risks specific to a knee arthroscopy, such as:

  • bleeding inside the knee joint
  • formation of a blood clot in the leg
  • infection inside the joint
  • stiffness in the knee
  • injury or damage to the cartilage, ligaments, meniscus, blood vessels, or nerves of the knee

Recovery After Knee Arthroscopy

This surgery is not very invasive. For most people, the procedure takes only an hour or two. You will likely be discharged on the same day and be able to go home for recovery. You will be given an ice pack on your knee and a dressing. The ice will help reduce swelling and minimize your pain.

At home, you should have someone to look after you, at least for the first day. Try to keep your leg elevated and put ice on it for a day or two to reduce swelling and pain. You will also need to change your dressing. Your doctor or surgeon will tell you when to do these things and for how long. You will probably need to see your surgeon for a follow-up appointment a few days after the procedure.

Your doctor will give you an exercise regimen to follow at home to help your knee recover, or will recommend a physical therapist to see until you are able to use your knee normally. The exercises are necessary to help restore your full range of motion and to strengthen your muscles. With the proper care, your outlook after having this procedure is excellent.

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