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Ankle Arthroscopy

  • Author: Vinod K Panchbhavi, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: Jason H Calhoun, MD, FACS  more...
Updated: Aug 31, 2015


Arthroscopy is an important diagnostic and therapeutic technique for management of disorders of the ankle joint.[1, 2, 3, 4] Ankle arthroscopy can be useful in treating a variety of intra-articular disorders, which may be caused by trauma or by degenerative, inflammatory, or neoplastic conditions. In some cases, the ankle joint disorder is related to extra-articular anomalies, which may be regional (eg, mechanical malalignment in the lower extremity) or systemic (eg, inflammatory arthritis).

As the indications for ankle arthroscopy have increased, so has its usage. The availability of fiberoptic arthroscopy, modern arthroscopic instrumentation, and ankle distraction techniques has allowed orthopedic surgeons to manage a growing of ankle disorders arthroscopically. Surgical procedures of the ankle performed arthroscopically are generally associated with lower morbidity, faster rehabilitation, and better cosmetic results as compared with conventional open surgical methods.[5, 6, 7, 8]

Management of osteochondral defects with autologous cartilage replacement currently requires an open procedure to suture a periosteal patch under which harvested and cultured cells are injected. A biocompatible scaffold for cell proliferation, Hyalograft C, uses laboratory-expanded autologous chondrocytes that are grown on a three-dimensional graft made of a benzyl ester of hyaluronic acid. The graft is implanted without the need for a periosteal flap and therefore can be implanted arthroscopically.[9]

The role of arthroscopy in the treatment of acute ankle fractures is still unclear; further research is needed. Arthroscopy can assist in reduction and internal fixation of ankle and pilon fractures. It is also useful for treating syndesmosis disruptions, evaluating and treating posterior malleolar fractures of the tibial plafond, and assisting in removal of debris and reduction of talus fractures. Coincidental or concurrent osteochondral lesions can be managed with replacement of fragments or, if this is not feasible, microfracture surgery.



Arthroscopy is indicated for diagnosis of certain soft-tissue disorders when the exact etiology of ankle symptoms remains unclear, as well as for treatment of a variety of ankle disorders, usually after conservative measures have failed.

Indications for diagnostic ankle arthroscopy include the following:

  • Unexplained pain, swelling, stiffness, instability
  • Locking and popping

Indications for therapeutic ankle arthroscopy include the following:

  • Articular injury
  • Soft-tissue injury
  • Posttraumatic soft-tissue impingement
  • Bony impingement
  • Arthrofibrosis
  • Instability
  • Arthroscopic-assisted fracture fixation [10]
  • Synovitis
  • Loose bodies
  • Intra-articular bands
  • Tendinitis
  • Osteophytes
  • Osteochondral defects (see the image below)
  • Arthrodesis
  • Septic arthritis
Arthroscopic view of an osteochondral defect being Arthroscopic view of an osteochondral defect being punctured by an awl.

Synovial inflammation and hypertrophy can result from various conditions, including inflammatory arthritis, infection, crystal arthropathies, degenerative and neuropathic changes, trauma, and overuse. Pigmented villonodularsynovitis is a benign synovial neoplasm that can be either generalized or local. Hemophiliacs often have synovial hypertrophy, and synovial impingement can lead to repeated ankle hemarthrosis.

Inversion injury of the ankle after a single episode or multiple episodes can lead to impingement of the superior portion of the anterior talofibular ligament.

Injury to the inferior tibiofibular syndesmosis can lead to tearing, scarring, and synovitis in the region of the anteroinferior tibiofibular ligament and impingement of this structure in the tibiofibular syndesmosis. Increased laxity resulting from torn ankle ligaments allows the talar dome to extrude anteriorly in dorsiflexion and cause soft-tissue impingement.[11]

Osteochondral lesions on the dome of the talus can result from acute trauma (eg, from an ankle sprain), degenerative changes, or repetitive trauma. About 10% of lesions are bilateral and are not associated with trauma. Traumatic lesions are mostly anterolateral in location, and degenerative lesions occur on the posteromedial aspect of the talus.

Loose bodies can be chondral or osteochondral in origin and usually result from trauma. They can also occur with synovial chondromatosis or synovial osteochondromatosis and can be free-floating or embedded in synovium or scar tissue.

Anterior osteophytes form over the anterior lip of the distal tibia and corresponding area of articulation on the dorsum of the neck of the talus. These osteophytes or spurs occur because of repetitive and forceful dorsiflexion. Football players and dancers have a high incidence of spurs.

After trauma or degeneration, wear and tear of the cartilage can be responsible for intra-articular adhesions, loose bodies, and osteophytes. In the late stages, most of the cartilage is denuded, exposing the subchondral bone and cysts.

Intra-articular injury is increasingly being recognized as associated with ankle fractures, but the role of ankle arthroscopy in the evaluation, treatment, and prevention of long-term sequelae is unclear.[12]



Absolute contraindications for ankle arthroscopy include the following:

  • Local soft-tissue infection
  • Severe degenerative joint disease
  • Poor vascularity in the leg

Relative contraindications for ankle arthroscopy include the following:

  • Moderate degenerative joint disease
  • Severe edema

Technical Considerations

Anatomic considerations

The ankle joint is a hinged synovial joint with primarily up-and-down movement (plantarflexion and dorsiflexion). However, when the ranges of motion of the ankle and subtalar joints are taken together, the complex functions as a universal joint. A thorough knowledge of the ankle joint anatomy, especially the contours of the articular surfaces and the neurovascular and tendinous structures in the surrounding soft tissue, is vital for planning and performing arthroscopy in this joint.[13]

Articular surface contours

The distal tibia is concave in the sagittal plane and convex in the coronal plane. The anterior tibial rim is mildly convex anteriorly and has a notch medially, where it recedes proximally by about 4-5 mm at the junction of the medial malleolus (see the images below).

Cadaver dissection demonstrating the convex anteri Cadaver dissection demonstrating the convex anterior aspect of distal tibial lip.
Cadaver specimen with dislocation of the ankle joi Cadaver specimen with dislocation of the ankle joint showing the contours of the talar dome.

The posterior tibial margin extends further distally than the anterior tibial margin by about 5-6 mm. The lateral malleolus extends further distally and is situated more posteriorly than the medial malleolus. The talofibular articulation slopes medially distally on a coronal plane. The fibular articular surface, in addition, is convex.

Topographic anatomy

About 6.5 cm proximal to the tip of the fibula, the superficial peroneal nerve divides into the intermediate and medial dorsal cutaneous branches.[14] In some individuals, these branches, especially the intermediate branch, can be made prominent under the skin by plantarflexion and supination of the foot (see the image below).

Demonstration of branches of the superficial peron Demonstration of branches of the superficial peroneal nerve.

The intermediate dorsal cutaneous nerve passes superficial to the inferior extensor retinaculum and crosses the ankle joint lateral to the peroneus tertius tendon. The medial dorsal cutaneous branch courses over the lateral part of the extensor digitorum longus tendon. These structures are subject to displacement if the joint is distended with fluid.

The deep peroneal nerve and the dorsalis pedis lie centrally in front of the ankle joint between the tibialis anterior and the extensor hallucis longus tendons.

The great saphenous vein and nerve run along the anterior border of the medial malleolus. The sural nerve and the small saphenous vein are located posterolaterally between the lateral border of the Achilles tendon and the peroneal tendon.

The soft spot between the posterior aspect of the medial malleolus and the anterior margin of the Achilles tendon hosts some important structures. Posteromedial to the ankle and between the posterior margin of the medial malleolus and the Achilles tendon, proceeding from superficial to deep, course the posterior tibial tendon, the flexor digitorum longus tendon, the tibial nerve and posterior tibial vessels, and the flexor hallucis longus tendon.

The superficial medial calcaneal nerve originates from the posterior tibial nerve 2-3 cm proximal to the tip of the medial malleolus. It runs anteroinferiorly for 2.0-2.5 cm, away from the Achilles tendon, curving posteriorly and medially, dividing in several cutaneous branches at the calcaneal tuberosity.

All these structures are at risk of lesions from surgical intervention at the subcutaneous layer.

Arthroscopic anatomy

The borders of the lateral gutter of the ankle include the talus medially, the fibula laterally, and the tibia superiorly, bordered by the anteroinferior and posteroinferior tibiofibular ligaments. The anteroinferior section of the lateral gutter is bordered by the anterior talofibular, calcaneofibular, and anterior talocalcaneal ligaments. The posteroinferior borders are composed of the posterior talofibular, calcaneofibular, and posterior talocalcaneal ligaments.

The posterolateral gutter structures include the posterior talofibular ligament, the posteroinferior tibiofibular ligament, the transverse tibiofibular ligament, the tibial slip, the flexor hallucis longus tendon, and a synovial nodule in the tibiofibular recess. The structures of the posteromedial gutter of the ankle include the flexor hallucis longus tendon and the deep portion of the deltoid ligament.



Outcome and prognosis vary, depending on the condition being managed. Good to excellent results have been reported at 2-year follow-up in as many as 84% of patients after arthroscopic management of anterolateral impingement.[15]

Persistent pain after an ankle sprain is often caused by the development of intra-articular fibrous scars or even tibiotalar spurs as a consequence of repetitive trauma. This may result in a posttraumatic impingement syndrome of the ankle. Pain is typically provoked by dorsiflexion of the ankle and palpation of the tibiotalar anterior joint space.

In a retrospective study evaluating 32 patients who underwent arthroscopy because of a grade I-III impingement syndrome of the ankle due to trauma without therapeutic response to conservative therapy over 3 months, ankle arthroscopy with resection of hypertrophic synovium and fibrous bands (type I) or tibial spurs (type II and III injuries) after an ankle sprain proved to be a reliable therapy for a posttraumatic impingement syndrome of the ankle that had not responded to conservative treatment.[16]

This approach was characterized by low morbidity and good-to-excellent results in most cases.[16] The outcome of arthroscopic treatment was related to the extent of chondral lesions. Diagnostic criteria included anterior ankle joint pain on palpation and pain provoked by dorsiflexion, in cases of grades II and III lesion spurs on the radiograph as well. The mean follow-up time was 49 months.

On the West Point Ankle Score, 26 patients had more than 80 points, corresponding to a good or excellent result (mean, 86 points; range, 80-98); their preoperative mean score was 64 (range, 57-70).[16] Of the remaining six, five had a fair postoperative result and one had a bad result (mean, 73 points; range, 62-78); their preoperative mean score was 56 point (range, 48-62). The fair and the poor results were associated with severe ankle sprain leading to ligament ruptures or fractures where severe chondral lesions were to be found with arthroscopy.

In another study, arthroscopic resection of a torn portion of the interosseous ligament causing syndesmotic impingement successfully relieved symptoms in all 19 patients.[17]

In other studies, arthroscopic drilling of osteochondral defects in the talus yielded good-to-excellent results in 28-93% of patients.[18, 19, 20, 21]

A study that correlated the size of the lesion with results after arthroscopic microfracture treatment for osteochondral lesions of the ankle in 105 consecutive patients achieved excellent results for lesions smaller than 15 mm, regardless of location, at a mean follow-up of 31.6 ± 12.1 months.[22] Increased age, a higher body mass index (BMI), a history of trauma, and the presence of osteophytes negatively affected outcome. The presence of instability and anterolateral soft tissue scars was correlated with a successful outcome.

A prospective cohort study designed to evaluate whether residual degenerative cartilage at the lesions may obstruct the healing of the articular cartilage showed that in the treatment of osteochondral lesions of the talar dome, removal of the remaining degenerative cartilage may be of some therapeutic benefit.[23] A total of 39 patients underwent arthroscopic drilling that kept the remaining cartilage at the lesion, and 30 underwent arthroscopic drilling that removed the remaining cartilage at the lesion.

In a prospective, controlled trial, patients with symptomatic, recalcitrant Ferkel class 2b, 3, and 4 osteochondral lesions of the talus were randomly assigned to chondroplasty, microfracture, or osteochondral autologous transplantation (OAT) treatment groups; no differences were found between chondroplasty, microfracture, and OAT.[24] In all, 11 patients underwent chondroplasty, nine patients (10 ankles) underwent microfracture surgery, and 12 underwent OAT. Mean time to follow-up was 53 months (range, 24-119 months).

Arthroscopic ankle arthrodesis has shown good-to-excellent results in approximately 85-97% of patients, with a rapid fusion time, a low rate of nonunion, and few complications.[25, 26]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Vinod K Panchbhavi, MD, FACS Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Chief, Division of Foot and Ankle Surgery, Director, Foot and Ankle Fellowship Program, Department of Orthopedics, University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine

Vinod K Panchbhavi, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, Orthopaedic Trauma Association, Texas Orthopaedic Association

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Styker.

Chief Editor

Jason H Calhoun, MD, FACS Department Chief, Musculoskeletal Sciences, Spectrum Health Medical Group

Jason H Calhoun, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, American Diabetes Association, American Medical Association, American Orthopaedic Association, American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, Michigan State Medical Society, Missouri State Medical Association, Southern Medical Association, Southern Orthopaedic Association, Texas Medical Association, Texas Orthopaedic Association, Musculoskeletal Infection Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Intraoperative photo showing establishment of an anterolateral portal. The arthroscope is inserted into the anteromedial portal.
Cadaver dissection demonstrating the convex anterior aspect of distal tibial lip.
Cadaver specimen with dislocation of the ankle joint showing the contours of the talar dome.
Demonstration of branches of the superficial peroneal nerve.
Ankle stirrup attached to a distraction device fixed to the operating table.
Ankle distraction stirrup attached to a belt worn by the surgeon.
Joint distention before establishment of the anteromedial portal.
Arthroscopic view of a loose body.
Arthroscopic view of an osteochondral defect being punctured by an awl.
Arthroscopic view of an intra-articular band.
Arthroscopic view following debridement with an arthroscopic shaver of the intra-articular band seen in the figure above.
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