Knee Arthroscopy | Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine | Dartmouth-Hitchcock
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Knee Arthroscopy

What is a knee arthroscopy?

A knee arthroscopy is a surgical procedure that allows an orthopaedic surgeon to diagnose and treat knee disorders by providing a clear view of the inside of the knee. After making small incisions (cuts), using a pencil-sized instrument called an arthroscope, the surgeon can see an image of your knee that is transmitted through a small camera, via optic fibers, to a television monitor. The TV image allows the surgeon to thoroughly examine the interior of your knee and determine the source of your problem. During the procedure, the surgeon can also insert surgical instruments through other small incisions in your knee to remove or repair damaged tissues.

Why would a doctor recommend a knee arthroscopy?

A doctor might use this procedure to diagnose or treat:

  • A torn meniscal cartilage
  • Loose fragments of bone or cartilage
  • Damaged joint surfaces or softening of the articular cartilage known as chondromalacia
  • Inflammation of the synovial membrane, such as rheumatoid or gouty arthritis
  • Abnormal alignment or instability of the kneecap
  • Torn ligaments including the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments

What does knee arthroscopy surgery involve?

If you decide to have a knee arthroscopy, you may be asked to have a complete physical with your family physician before surgery to assess your health and to rule out any conditions that could interfere with your surgery. Before surgery, you should tell your orthopaedic surgeon about any medications you are taking. You will be informed which medications you should stop taking before surgery. Tests, such as blood samples or a cardiogram, may be ordered by your orthopaedic surgeon to help plan your procedure.

Almost all arthroscopic knee surgery is done on an outpatient basis. You will be asked to arrive at the hospital an hour or two prior to your surgery and will be asked not to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your surgery.

When you arrive at the medical center, you will be evaluated by a member of the anesthesia team. Arthroscopy can be performed under local, regional, or general anesthesia. Local anesthesia numbs your knee, regional anesthesia numbs you below your waist, and general anesthesia puts you to sleep. The anesthesiologist will help you determine which would be the best for you.

The surgeon will make the small cut and fluid will be put into the knee to allow for better viewing of the inside. The most common types of arthroscopic surgery include removal or repair of a torn meniscus (cartilage), ligament reconstruction, removal of loose debris, and trimming damaged cartilage.

If necessary, other instruments can be inserted to repair damage or remove material that interferes with movement or causes pain.

The fluid is drained out of the joint at the end of the procedure. The incisions are closed with stitches. The procedure takes 30 minutes to an hour.

How long is the recovery after knee arthroscopy surgery?

Before discharge, you will be given advice about caring for stitches and bathing. A physical therapist will also talk with you about getting the joint moving and will discuss exercising at home.

Once home, it may be necessary to continue taking painkillers as advised by the nursing or medical staff. The joint is likely to be sore, so anyone who has this operation needs to be prepared to take it easy for at least a few days and avoid any strenuous exercise, lifting, or carrying. Driving should be avoided for the first 48 hours.

Exercises recommended by the physical therapist are a crucial part of the recovery process, so it is essential to continue with them as directed. There may be some discomfort from the joint, and some swelling, for around two weeks after surgery. This can last longer if the treatment has been for arthritis. Most people are able to return to work two to three days after knee arthroscopy, although it may be longer if their job involves bending, lifting, or carrying.

It is usually possible to go back to physical activities or sports after around three weeks. The surgeon will provide more advice about this in each individual case.

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