Joint aspiration

Joints are the connections between two or more bones. They help to make it possible for us to move our bodies. If a joint is swollen or inflamed due to an injury or disease, more fluid may build up inside it. The medical term for this is "joint effusion."

Joint aspiration involves using a thin hollow needle to take some of the fluid out of the joint. This procedure, also known as arthrocentesis, is one of the most common procedures used for muscle and bone problems. It is most often done at the knee or shoulder.

When is joint aspiration necessary?

If a joint is swollen, analyzing a sample of joint fluid (synovial fluid) can help to find the cause of swelling. Even the color can be used as a first indication of what is wrong: Fluid from a healthy joint is usually clear. The fluid inside an injured joint is often a bloody reddish color, and the fluid inside an inflamed joint is usually cloudy. The sample of fluid can be tested to find out whether, for instance, it contains bacteria or abnormally high levels of white blood cells.

Aspiration may also be used as a treatment, to reduce the pressure on the joint, for example. Then the doctor uses the syringe to remove the excess fluid. If needed, medication can be injected into the joint during joint aspiration.

A contrast medium is sometimes injected into the area between the bones (the joint space) to make it easier to see details when taking an x-ray.

What happens during the procedure?

Special preparation is usually not needed. The surrounding skin is carefully disinfected beforehand to keep germs from entering the joint. Sometimes the area is covered with a sterile cloth. The doctor wears sterile disposable gloves, and usually a surgical gown, a surgical mask and a cap. Sterilized disposable cannulas and syringes are unpacked right before use.

Joint aspiration typically feels a bit like having blood drawn. A local anesthetic is usually not needed, but a numbing gel or spray may be used. The doctor can use ultrasound to locate the position of very small or deep joints, and will then mark the right spot for inserting the needle on your skin. Ultrasound is sometimes used to monitor the entire procedure.

If necessary, the fluid that is removed is sent to the laboratory in a tube for analysis. A pressure bandage is often applied after the procedure. The joint itself usually needs to be kept still - how long will depend on the cause of the swelling and whether medication was injected during the aspiration. Afterwards it is important to watch carefully for signs of . If the joint or puncture site are red, swollen or start feeling very warm, you should inform your doctor immediately. Other warning signs include fever and worsening pain.

What are the associated risks?

The doctor should explain the procedure and associated risks in as much detail as possible before carrying out the joint aspiration.

There may be bleeding in the joint afterwards. Inflammation at the needle insertion site is also possible. If medication is injected as well, it may cause a feeling of pressure or a short burning sensation. The medication might have side effects such as allergic reactions too. Anti-inflammatory drugs can lead to facial redness, increased blood pressure, a racing heartbeat and flushing.

The greatest risk is that of an caused by germs that have managed to get in. This risk varies depending on what is done during the aspiration and which joint is involved. Diabetes or a weakened increase the risk of .

Joint aspiration is not advisable if you have an , wound or skin condition near the site of needle insertion. This greatly increases the risk of .

Pschyrembel W. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2014.

Robert Koch-Institut (RKI). Anforderungen an die Hygiene bei Punktionen und Injektionen. Empfehlung der Kommission für Krankenhaushygiene und Infektionsprävention beim Robert Koch-Institut. Bundesgesundheitsblatt 2011, 54: 1135-1144.

Tamborrini G, Krebs A. Injektionstechnik peripherer Gelenke und periartikulärer Strukturen aus der Sicht klinisch tätiger Rheumatologen. Praxis 2013; 102(8): 457-464.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on July 13, 2016
Next planned update: 2020

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.