Joint Assessment With Bedside Ultrasonography

Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Author: Marsha F Lewis, MD, MSc; Chief Editor: Mahan Mathur, MD 


Since 1895, when Wilhelm Röntgen produced his first x-ray (of his wife’s hand), physicians have used imaging to "see" beneath the skin, having progressed from these early modalities to advanced imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasonography. These nonionizing imaging modalities afford significant resolution, allowing clinicians to appreciate the structure of and anatomic relationships between joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles.

Despite significant technological advancements since Röntgen's discovery, patients who present with common musculoskeletal complaints are routinely still evaluated only by x-ray. It is not surprising that these studies often produce negative results, given that x-rays offer poor visualization of ligaments, muscles, and other soft tissues. MRI is the best imaging modality for anatomic detail, but expense, availability, and even claustrophobia preclude its widespread use. Additionally, MR images are limited in that they are static.

Joint arthropathies often require continuous monitoring of the joint condition, typically performed using MRI or ultrasound (US). US imaging is often the preferred screening modality because it is fast and inexpensive.[1]  Ultrasonography is available in many clinical settings (eg, outpatient clinics, intensive care units, emergency departments) as an adjunct to procedural guidance and critical care evaluation. One of its main advantages is that it allows for dynamic soft tissue examination. When used to evaluate the musculoskeletal system, bedside ultrasonography can provide clinicians with valuable information that cannot be provided by radiography.[2, 3]

Joint aspiration, or arthrocentesis, is one of the most commonly performed procedures in the evaluation and treatment of joint diseases. Joint aspiration may aid in diagnosis by assessing synovial fluid for the degree of inflammation and for the presence of pathologic agents such as crystals or microorganisms. Additionally, arthrocentesis may prove therapeutic in some cases by relieving intra-articular pressure and by injecting intra-articular drugs (eg, steroids).[4, 5, 6]

Although arthrocentesis is generally safe and simple, limited physician experience or technical difficulties (eg, patient positioning, body habitus) can make some cases challenging. When this occurs, procedural guidance using ultrasonography may prove beneficial.[7, 8, 9, 10]

General procedures recommended by the European League Against Rheumatism for musculoskeletal ultrasound assessment in rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases include the following[11] :

  • Musculoskeletal ultrasound (MSUS) includes 2 principal modes: B-mode (or gray scale), which provides morphologic information on anatomic structures, and Doppler mode (color Doppler or power Doppler), which allows evaluation of blood flow.

  • MSUS should be performed with high-resolution linear transducers (ie, probes) with frequencies between 6 and 14 MHz for deep/intermediate areas to ≥15 MHz for superficial areas.

  • Tissue harmonic imaging, spatial compound imaging, extended field of view (panoramic), and virtual convex imaging are some of the software capabilities that may be useful in MSUS.

  • When a joint is scanned, the probe should be oriented as perpendicular or parallel to the bony cortical surface (bony acoustic landmark) so that the cortical margin appears bright, sharp, and hyperechoic.

  • A dynamic scanning technique by means of slight movements of translation (side-to-side, back-to-front), angulation, and rotation of the probe should be carried out to allow best visualization of the structure(s) of interest.

  • Musculoskeletal structures should be evaluated as they move smoothly either actively or passively.

  • To avoid anisotropy (ie, hypoechoic/anechoic appearance of a normally hyperechoic structure that mainly affects tendons) and the common pitfalls that accompany it, the probe should be continuously adjusted to maintain the beam perpendicular to tendon fibers, especially in insertional regions.

  • When the long axis of the structure of interest corresponds to the cranial-caudal orientation of the anatomic position, the most proximal aspect of the structure is usually placed on the left-hand side of the screen. However, other options are acceptable as long as movement of the image on the screen is kept parallel to the direction of the probe on the patient. Our preference for short axis is to align the structure of interest on the screen as if the observer is looking at the patient.

  • Probe compression can be helpful in distinguishing a compressible liquid collection from a non-compressible solid. Little or no compression is important when Doppler examination is performed to avoid cessation of flow in small vessels.

  • A generous amount of gel should be used for superficial structures, especially when little or no pressure is indicated.

  • The machine setting for B-mode and Doppler mode should be properly adjusted to optimize the US image acquisition process.



Ultrasonography has many diagnostic musculoskeletal applications, as noted below:

  • Effusions - Diagnosis and aspiration of joint and tendon sheath effusions

  • Synovium - Diagnosis of synovial proliferation and synovitis[12]

  • Bursa - Diagnosis of superficial and deep bursitis; aspiration of bursal fluid and bursal injections[13]

  • Bone - Demonstration of joint erosion

  • Gout - Detection of monosodium urate crystals in gout[14]

  • Tendon/Ligament - Diagnosis of tendon damage, rupture, tendonitis, or tenosynovitis[15] ; diagnosis of ligament injury

  • Muscle - Diagnosis of muscle trauma, tumor, or abscess

  • Nerve - Demonstration of nerve morphology and continuity; guidance of nerve blocks[16]

With specific regard to joint evaluation and arthrocentesis, the indications can be broadly separated into diagnostic and therapeutic, as follows:

  • Diagnostic: (1) evaluation of a suspected septic joint; (2) identification of crystal arthropathy

  • Therapeutic: (1) pain relief by aspiration of synovial fluid or blood; (2) drainage of septic effusion; (3) injection of intra-articular drugs such as corticosteroids and anesthetics



Unlike radiographs and CT scans, ultrasonography does not use ionizing radiation. It is noninvasive and does not require the use of contrast medium (dye). No absolute contraindications exist to diagnostic ultrasonography. However, patient positioning and comfort could preclude the use of ultrasound in some circumstances.

Although no absolute contraindications exist to arthrocentesis, relative contraindications do exist, and as with all procedures, the risks and benefits should be considered and discussed with the patient before beginning.

Caution should be used in patients with coagulopathy. A coagulation panel should be checked prior to the procedure when patients are taking warfarin, or when a coagulation abnormality is clinically suspected. Coagulopathy should be treated only if reversal is clinically appropriate in the context of the patient's underlying medical conditions. Even without reversal, coagulopathy should not deter the physician from performing arthrocentesis, if indicated. One trial of patients on warfarin found no complications after arthrocentesis.[17]

Inserting a needle through an overlying skin infection could theoretically seed the joint with bacteria from the skin. Therefore, try to avoid areas of the skin suspicious for cellulitis.



In general, diagnostic ultrasonography does not require any anesthesia. If, however, arthrocentesis is also performed, then local anesthesia will be needed.

Note that patients who are particularly anxious or who are in severe pain may require procedural sedation.

After identifying the optimal needle entry site, clean, drape, and prepare the region in the usual sterile fashion.

Using a 25- or 27-gauge needle, begin by making a subcutaneous skin wheal using an anesthetic (eg, 1% lidocaine without epinephrine); then inject an additional 1-3 mL of anesthetic into the subcutaneous tissue overlying the chosen needle insertion site.

Avoid injecting directly into the joint space because most local anesthetics have bacteriostatic or bacteriocidal properties that may interfere with results of synovial fluid analysis.[18]



Equipment includes the following:

  • Portable ultrasound machine

  • Acoustic coupling gel

  • Appropriate transducer (probe)

  • Sterile gloves and drapes

  • Skin-cleaning solution (eg, chlorhexidine, povidone-iodine solution)

  • 1% lidocaine without epinephrine

  • Syringe, 5 mL (for lidocaine injection)

  • Needle, 25 or 27 gauge (for lidocaine injection)

  • Syringe, 30 mL (for synovial fluid aspiration)

  • Needle, 18 gauge (for synovial fluid aspiration)

  • Specimen tube

The type of transducer used is an important consideration. Some transducers are well suited to musculoskeletal ultrasonography; others are designed for visualization of deeper structures.

An ultrasound transducer is designed to operate by emitting sound waves within a specific frequency range. The higher the frequency, the better the image resolution. This improved resolution, however, comes at the cost of sound wave penetration into tissues and results in poor visualization of deeper structures. Conversely, a transducer with a lower frequency range permits deeper tissue penetration but results in lower-resolution images.

For most musculoskeletal applications, the linear, or small-parts, transducer is most useful (see the image below). This is a high-frequency probe that provides high-resolution images of more superficial structures. In the obese patient with a significant amount of soft tissue overlying the joint of interest, a curvilinear probe, which has a lower frequency and greater tissue penetration, may be helpful.

Linear array ultrasound transducer. Linear array ultrasound transducer.


In general, position the patient at a comfortable height and location for the examiner. The clinician performing the examination should be able to easily reach both the patient and the ultrasound machine without having to stretch, stoop, lean, or bend excessively.

Specific patient positioning depends on the particular joint of interest.

General ultrasonography techniques

As with positioning, specific technique depends on the particular joint being examined. However, the following general techniques are important to understand and are applicable regardless of the joint, musculoskeletal region, or even organ system that is being evaluated.[5]

Every ultrasound probe has an indicator (usually a mark or palpable protuberance) that identifies the probe's leading edge. The opposite end of the probe (without the indicator) is called the receding edge. The leading edge of the probe corresponds to the left side of the screen, and the receding edge corresponds to the right side of the screen (the transducer:screen relationship can be remembered by Leading edge:Left side of screen and Receding edge:Right side of screen). One can apply gel to the transducer and touch one end to confirm which side is which.

To produce an ultrasound image, an ample amount of acoustic gel should be placed on the probe. The probe should be placed on the region of interest with the leading edge pointed either toward the patient's head (cephalad) or toward the right side of the patient's body.

Once the transducer is placed on the patient's skin, a rectangular image (if the linear array probe is used) will be displayed on the screen. The top of the image is called the near field and represents superficial tissues nearest the probe. The bottom of the screen is called the far field and represents deeper tissues farther from the probe. The left side of the screen represents the probe's leading edge (which should be pointed toward the patient's head or right side), and the right side of the screen represents the probe's receding edge (which should be pointed toward the patient's feet or left side).

In the images below, the practitioner is evaluating the patient's knee; the femur is cephalad and the tibia is caudad relative to the probe. The transducer's leading edge is aimed cephalad (toward the femur), which appears on the left side of the screen.

Anterior approach to visualizing a knee effusion w Anterior approach to visualizing a knee effusion with ultrasonography.
This medial approach demonstrates the femur at the This medial approach demonstrates the femur at the leading edge of the screen, oriented toward the patient's head, with the tibia at the receding edge.

The ultrasound image shown is created by emitting sound waves from the transducer and then "listening" for reflected sound waves that return. The ultrasound machine processes the intensity of returning echoes to create an image on the screen according to a grayscale spectrum of black, white, and many shades of gray. Whether a particular structure appears black, white, or gray on the screen depends on the tissue's echogenicity, which, in turn, depends on the tissue's density, water content, and elasticity. Black (anechoic) shapes generally represent fluid or artifact. Gray, or hypoechoic, images represent "soft" tissues, and white, or hyperechoic, images represent dense tissues. The table below lists the echogenicity of various tissues. Sonographic examples of bone, muscle, and tendon are shown.

Echogenicities of various tissues. Echogenicities of various tissues.
Ultrasonographic image of muscle tissue (outlined Ultrasonographic image of muscle tissue (outlined in green). Note how muscle tissue is hypoechoic and striated.
Ultrasonographic image of a finger. Note the hyper Ultrasonographic image of a finger. Note the hyperechoic bone tissue of the metacarpal and phalanx. Extensor tendon is in the near field; note how the tendon is hyperechoic and striated compared to the hypoechoic striations of muscle.

Shoulder technique

A glenohumeral joint effusion may be seen with septic arthritis of the shoulder. It is associated with a rotator cuff tear and can be detected by ultrasonographic examination of the biceps brachii tendon.[19]

Because the tendon sheath of the long head of the biceps brachii (highlighted in blue in the image below) communicates with the glenohumeral joint, increased synovial fluid collects in this dependent extension of the joint. As with most fluids, the collection appears anechoic (black) on the ultrasound screen. Note that a tiny amount of physiologic fluid is often seen on one side of the biceps tendon under normal circumstances, but excess fluid is considered abnormal, especially if the fluid is circumferential.[20, 21]

Biceps brachii anatomy. Note the tendon sheath of Biceps brachii anatomy. Note the tendon sheath of long head of biceps brachii, highlighted in blue.

To begin, have the patient sit on a rotating stool, if possible. Place the patient's arm in a neutral position with the elbow at his or her side and the dorsum of the hand lying on the thigh.

Holding the linear array transducer with the leading edge aimed toward the patient's right side, visualize the tendon sheath of the long arm of the biceps brachii in the short axis (cross-sectional view). Proper technique and patient positioning are shown in the image below.

Technique for obtaining short axis view of the bic Technique for obtaining short axis view of the biceps brachii tendon.

Under normal circumstances, only a minimal amount of fluid should be seen between the biceps brachii tendon and the tendon sheath. With the presence of a glenohumeral joint effusion, fluid dependently travels from the glenohumeral joint space inferiorly and collects between the biceps brachii tendon and the tendon sheath. An example of a normal-appearing biceps brachii tendon is shown in the image below.

Normal biceps brachii tendon and surrounding tendo Normal biceps brachii tendon and surrounding tendon sheath.

To aspirate the glenohumeral joint, begin by preparing the skin with cleansing solution and draping the shoulder with a sterile cover. Insert an 18-gauge needle attached to a syringe midway between the coracoid and the anterolateral corner of the acromion. Direct the needle posteriorly and slightly inferiorly. For details, see Shoulder Arthrocentesis.

Knee technique

Knee effusions have many causes, including trauma, infection, arthritis,[22] and crystal deposition. Increased joint fluid in the knee is characterized ultrasonographically by anechoic distention of the suprapatellar recess (shown in red in the image below). With slight flexion of the knee, excess synovial fluid extends superiorly from between the patella and the femur and preferentially collects deep to the quadriceps tendon.[23, 6]

Illustration of knee joint. Note suprapatellar rec Illustration of knee joint. Note suprapatellar recess in red.

The best way to visualize fluid in the suprapatellar recess is via the anterior approach. Begin by placing the patient in the supine position with the knee exposed and slightly flexed (placing a rolled towel behind the patient's knee may aid in positioning), as shown in the image below.

Anterior approach to imaging the knee. Anterior approach to imaging the knee.

Place the linear array transducer parallel to the quadriceps femoris muscle tendon just superior to the patella. This provides a longitudinal, or long axis, view of the quadriceps femoris muscle and tendon, as well as of the suprapatellar recess.

Sweep the probe proximally and distally along the quadriceps muscle and tendon to visualize the entire suprapatellar space. Synovial fluid within the space appears anechoic (black).

Knee effusion and knee hemarthrosis are shown in the image below. This image was acquired using the anterior approach described and shown above. Note the fibrillar quadriceps tendon in the near field, the hyperechoic (white) femur in the far field, and the patella at the receding (right) edge. The anechoic fluid bounded by the green arrowheads and within the suprapatellar space indicates the presence of a joint effusion.

Note knee effusion in suprapatellar recess (bounde Note knee effusion in suprapatellar recess (bounded by green arrows).

The most common approach to knee arthrocentesis is the lateral approach at the level of the superior pole of the patella. The skin is prepared in the usual manner, and the superolateral aspect of the patella is palpated. An 18-gauge needle is inserted 1 fingerbreadth superior and lateral to this point. The needle is angled at a 45-degree angle beneath the patella.[24]

Ankle technique

Ankle effusions can be caused by local factors such as infection, gout, or occult fracture, or by systemic processes such as hemophilia, sickle cell disease, or rheumatoid arthritis. Although conventional radiographs require up to 5 mL of synovial fluid, ultrasonography requires as little as 2 mL of fluid, before an ankle effusion can be detected.[25, 26, 4] The image below depicts normal ankle anatomy for reference.

Illustration of normal ankle anatomy. Illustration of normal ankle anatomy.

The most sensitive location from which to identify an ankle joint effusion is over the anterior recess of the tibiotalar joint. An anterior approach to evaluating the ankle should be used: the linear array probe is oriented longitudinally at the level of the tibiotalar joint with the foot in mild plantar flexion; as always, the probe's leading edge should be aimed cephalad.

Once properly positioned, the tibia is seen at the left side of the screen (leading edge), and the talus is seen at the right side of the screen (receding edge). An example of correct probe placement and normal anatomy is shown in the first image below; in the second image, note the hypoechoic anterior fat pad between the tibia and talus.

Ultrasonographic approach to imaging a tibiotalar Ultrasonographic approach to imaging a tibiotalar (ankle) effusion.
Ultrasound image of normal ankle anatomy. The tibi Ultrasound image of normal ankle anatomy. The tibia is at the left side of the screen (the leading edge).

An ankle effusion appears as an anechoic region in the anterior recess between the tibia and the talus (see the image below).

Ultrasonographic image of a tibiotalar joint effus Ultrasonographic image of a tibiotalar joint effusion. The effusion is in the anterior recess between the tibia and talus.

The anterolateral approach to ankle arthrocentesis is preferred because it reduces potential injury to the dorsalis pedis artery and the peroneal nerve. Following usual preparation, skin cleansing, and draping, a needle is inserted at the joint line midway between the base of the lateral malleolus and the lateral border of the extensor digitorum longus. Extension of the foot by the practitioner against the patient's resistance may help identify this space. The needle should be advanced perpendicular to the fibular shaft.

Conventional 2-dimensional (2-D) US has limited capability in comparing imaging results between examinations because of its operator dependence and challenges related to repeat imaging in the same location and orientation. Comparison between several imaging sessions is crucial for assessment of the progression of joint conditions. It has been proposed that a novel 3-D US scanner for ankle joint assessment can partially overcome these issues by enabling 3-D imaging. A volunteer study revealed useful features for joint assessment available in 3-D ankle scanner images, such as joint spacing, distal tibia, and proximal talus.[1]

Hip technique

Hip effusions can be common in patients with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, but they can also arise in normal joints affected by osteomyelitis, trauma, toxic synovitis, and Legg-Calve-Perthes disease in children.[8, 27, 28, 29, 30] The most serious cause of hip effusions in both adult and pediatric populations is septic arthritis, as it can lead to rapid joint destruction and significant morbidity. Plain films are not sensitive for detecting effusions, and MRI is typically unavailable in the emergency department. (See the images below.)

Illustration of normal hip anatomy. Illustration of normal hip anatomy.
Anterior approach to imaging the hip. Ultrasound m Anterior approach to imaging the hip. Ultrasound marker is directed toward umbilicus (red arrow).

Synovial fluid in a normal joint often is not visualized by ultrasonography. When a hip effusion is present, it appears as an anechoic or hypoechoic collection that elevates the joint capsule, displacing the iliofemoral ligament from the femoral neck. The most prominent area of fluid accumulation occurs in the anterior synovial recess—an area located anterior to the femoral neck and posterior to the joint capsule.[28]

The approach most often used to examine a hip effusion is the anterior approach, with the patient in a supine position and the hip in slight flexion and internal rotation. This position allows the fluid collection to move anteriorly. Transducers used include the 3- to 5-MHz curved array or the 7.5- to 10-MHz linear array, and the probe should be placed in a sagittal oblique plane parallel to the long axis of the femoral neck, with the marker pointing toward the umbilicus. In this view, landmarks visualized include femoral head and neck, acetabulum, iliofemoral ligament, and anterior synovial recess. It is important to locate femoral vessels and to position the probe lateral to the femoral vessels.

The sonographic criterion for a hip effusion in the adult patient is an anechoic fluid stripe greater than 5 mm located under the hyperechoic iliofemoral ligament, extending along the entire length of the femoral neck, or greater than 2 mm of asymmetry compared to the contralateral hip.[28]

Arthrocentesis is a sterile procedure, and the hip should be prepared and draped for needle aspiration. Following the technique described above, the femoral head should be visualized on the ultrasound screen. A sterile 18- to 22-gauge spinal needle attached to a 20-mL syringe can be used to aspirate the effusion under direct visualization.



To achieve adequate ultrasound images, remember to apply plenty of acoustic gel and pressure with the transducer. The most common reasons for obtaining poor-quality images are too little gel and too little pressure.

The gain adjusts the amplification of the returning signal. Adjust the gain as needed to make black (anechoic) objects appear black on the screen. For example, if a urine-filled bladder appears gray (hypoechoic), decrease the gain to make it black (anechoic). If bone appears gray (hypoechoic), increase the gain to make it white (hyperechoic). When gain is adjusted consistently, all tissues are displayed and recognized according to their relative echogenicity.

Anisotropy is a well-described phenomenon in medical ultrasound imaging; it describes any property that is directionally dependent. Many tissues such as tendons have a lot of anisotropy, which means their echogenicity is dependent on the angle of the ultrasound probe. To achieve the best possible images, hold the probe at 90 degrees to the tissue or structure of interest. The angle of insonation should be 90 degrees for B-mode images.



Allergic reactions from hypersensitivity to local anesthetics can occur. Frequently, this is due to the preservative, not to the anesthetic itself. In such cases, using a preservative-free anesthetic prevents the problem. 

Local bruising may occur at the injection or arthrocentesis site.

Damage to cartilage, tendons, or blood vessels can occur with improper needle placement. This can be avoided by reviewing the anatomy prior to the procedure and by using ultrasonographic guidance to help identify and avoid these structures.

Generally, hemarthroses are small and require no specific treatment. However, a hemarthrosis in a coagulopathic patient requires correction of the coagulopathy. Hematology consultation should be considered. Hemarthrosis is pictured in the image and videos below.

A hemarthrosis is shown. A hemarthrosis is shown.
Ultrasound video of hemarthrosis from anterior, medial, and lateral approaches.

Joint infections after arthrocentesis are rare (1:10000). However, infections in previously sterile joints have been reported in patients with bacteremia.[9]