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How To Do Elbow Arthrocentesis

By

Alexandra Villa-Forte

, MD, MPH, Cleveland Clinic

Last full review/revision Nov 2020| Content last modified Nov 2020
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Arthrocentesis of the elbow is the process of puncturing the elbow joint with a needle to withdraw synovial fluid. The lateral approach is described.

Indications

  • Diagnosis of the cause of a synovial effusion (eg, infection, crystal-induced arthritis)

  • Removal of a synovial effusion and/or injection of drugs as part of treatment and for pain relief

Contraindications

Absolute contraindications

  • Infection of skin or deeper tissues at the anticipated site of needle insertion

If possible, an alternate, uninfected site should be used. However, acutely inflamed joints may be generally warm, tender, and red, thus mimicking extra-articular infection and making it hard to find an uninvolved insertion site. Ultrasonography can be done; visualization of a joint effusion can reinforce the decision to do arthrocentesis despite surrounding erythema. NOTE: If infectious arthritis is strongly suspected, arthrocentesis should be done regardless of erythema or negative ultrasonographic results because joint infection must not be missed.

Relative contraindications

  • Severe bleeding diathesis, which may need to be corrected before arthrocentesis; routine therapeutic anticoagulation is not a contraindication, particularly if infection is suspected

  • Prosthetic joint, which is susceptible to iatrogenic infection; prosthetic joint arthrocentesis should be done by an orthopedic surgeon

Complications

Complications are uncommon and include

  • Infection

  • Damage to tendon, nerve, or blood vessels (traumatic tap)

Equipment

  • Antiseptic solution (eg, chlorhexidine, povidone iodine, isopropyl alcohol), sterile gauze and bandage, and sterile gloves

  • Nonsterile underpads

  • Local anesthetic (eg, 1% lidocaine, 25- to 30-gauge needle, 3- to 5-mL syringe)

  • For joint aspiration, a 25- to 38-mm (1- to 1.5-inch) 20- or 22-gauge needle and a 10- to 20-mL syringe

  • Appropriate containers for collection of fluid for laboratory tests (eg, cell count, crystals, cultures)

  • For intra-articular therapeutic injection, a syringe containing a corticosteroid (eg, triamcinolone acetonide 40 mg or methylprednisolone acetate 40 mg) and/or a long-acting anesthetic (eg, 0.25% bupivacaine), and a hemostat to help switch syringes

Additional Considerations

  • Sterile technique is necessary to prevent microbial contamination of both the joint space and the aspirated synovial fluid.

Relevant Anatomy

  • The needle is inserted just distal to the lateral epicondyle, in the depression felt between the lateral epicondyle, ulna, and radial head.

Arthrocentesis of the elbow

The ulnohumeral joint is entered while the patient’s elbow is flexed at 60° and the wrist is pronated. The needle enters the joint’s lateral surface, between the lateral humeral epicondyle, the ulna, and the radial head.

Arthrocentesis of the elbow

Positioning

  • Position the patient supine, sitting, or semi-recumbent with the elbow flexed to 90° and the forearm pronated with the palm down.

Step-by-Step Description of Procedure

  • Palpate the lateral elbow to identify the radial head, which can be felt rotating when the patient alternately pronates and supinates the wrist. Also identify the lateral epicondyle and the olecranon process. Joint effusion, if palpable, can be felt between these three landmarks. If desired, mark the needle entry site with a skin-marking pen.

  • Rest the elbow on an underpad. Prepare the area with a skin-cleansing agent, such as chlorhexidine or povidone iodine, then use an alcohol wipe to remove the agent.

  • Place a wheal of local anesthetic over the needle entry site using a 25- to 30-gauge needle.

  • Palpate the landmarks.

  • Aspirate the joint using a 20- or 22-gauge needle on a 10- to 20-mL syringe. Aiming toward the medial epicondyle, insert and advance the needle. Pull back on the plunger as you advance. Synovial fluid will enter the syringe when the joint is entered.

  • If the needle hits bone, retract almost to the skin surface and then redirect at a different angle.

  • Drain all fluid from the joint.

  • If intra-articular drugs (eg, anesthetic, corticosteroid) are to be given, hold the hub of the needle motionless (using a hemostat if available) while removing the synovial fluid-containing syringe and replace it with the drug-containing syringe. If the needle has remained in place in the joint space, there will be no resistance to drug injection.

  • After injecting a corticosteroid, move the joint through full range of motion to distribute the drug throughout the joint.

  • Transfer synovial fluid to tubes and other transport media for synovial fluid analysis. Inspect the fluid for blood and fat.

  • Apply an adhesive bandage or sterile dressing.

Aftercare

  • Ice, elevation, and oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help relieve pain.

  • Apply compression if there is bleeding from the procedure site.

  • If an intra-articular anesthetic has been given, limited joint activity should be prescribed for 4 to 8 hours.

  • If an intra-articular corticosteroid has been given, a period of immobilization lasting about 24 to 48 hours may be needed.

  • If the patient has increased redness, pain, and/or swelling > 12 hours after the procedure, the joint should be examined for possible infection.

Warnings and Common Errors

  • Carefully ensure optimal positioning before joint puncture.

  • Allow adequate time for local anesthesia to take effect before proceeding.

  • To avoid damaging the synovium and articular cartilage, do not advance the needle against resistance and do not move the needle once it has begun draining synovial fluid.

  • If the needle tip must be relocated, first withdraw it almost to the skin surface then redirect; do not try to change the angle of insertion while a needle is embedded in tissue.

Tips and Tricks

Consider doing ultrasonography if there is no obvious large effusion.

Note also that warmth, tenderness, and redness may overlie an acutely inflamed arthritic joint, mimicking extra-articular infection.

When trying to differentiate infectious arthritis from infection of the overlying structures (a contraindication to arthrocentesis), infectious arthritis is more likely with the following:

  • Joint effusion

  • Circumferential joint pain

  • More pain with passive than active joint motion

When inspecting fluid, consider the following:

  • The hemarthrosis of a traumatic tap tends to be nonuniformly bloody and tends to clot.

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