Evaluation of arthroscopy and macroscopic scoring
© af Klint et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
Received: 14 May 2007
Accepted: 02 June 2009
Published: 02 June 2009
Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive technique for retrieving synovial biopsies in rheumatology during the past 20 years. Vital for its use is continual evaluation of its safety and efficacy. Important for sampling is the fact of intraarticular variation for synovial markers. For microscopic measurements scoring systems have been developed and validated, but for macroscopic evaluations there is a need for further comprehensive description and validation of equivalent scoring systems.
We studied the complication rate and yield of arthroscopies performed at our clinic between 1998 and 2005. We also created and evaluated a macroscopic score set of instructions for synovitis.
Of 408 procedures, we had two major and one minor complication; two haemarthrosis and one wound infection, respectively. Pain was most often not a problem, but 12 procedures had to be prematurely ended due to pain. Yield of biopsies adequate for histology were 83% over all, 94% for knee joints and 34% for smaller joints. Video printer photographs of synovium taken during arthroscopy were jointly and individually reviewed by seven raters in several settings, and intra and inter rater variation was calculated. A macroscopic synovial scoring system for arthroscopy was created (Macro-score), based upon hypertrophy, vascularity and global synovitis. These written instructions were evaluated by five control-raters, and when evaluated individual parameters were without greater intra or inter rater variability, indicating that the score is reliable and easy to use.
In our hands rheumatologic arthroscopy is a safe method with very few complications. For knee joints it is a reliable method to retrieve representative tissue in clinical longitudinal studies. We also created an easy to use macroscopic score, that needs to be validated against other methodologies. We hope it will be of value in further developing international standards in this area.
Diseases causing chronic inflammation in joints are common and often debilitating conditions. The synovial membrane (SM) is the primary target organ for the immune system in many chronic arthritides, and particularly in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) where a pannus of cells is formed, eroding cartilage and bone. Consequently, it is to be expected that investigations of the SM will provide clues to the pathogenesis of disease and effect of therapy. A number of studies have shown that the inflammatory changes in the synovium correlate with clinical [1–6], as well as radiological [7–10], outcomes.
Effects of different treatments [11–32] on these patterns have been studied and efforts have been made to investigate whether synovial histology markers could be used to evaluate the effect of a drug with some success [27, 30, 32]. Sampling of the synovial membrane has also been used as a 'proof of concept' prior to  or early on in clinical trials  of new drugs. Importantly, more recent studies have also found predictive markers of clinical effect [28, 31, 35]; however, more work needs to be conducted before we have simple markers enabling physicians to individually tailor medication. So far these markers are exclusively present in the synovium, the target organ of the inflammation, requiring surgical sampling of tissue.
Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive technique, traditionally used by orthopaedic surgeons, which has evolved as a research instrument in rheumatology to permit retrieval of SM during the past 20 years. Vital for its use is continual evaluation of its safety and efficacy, and the fact that there is intra-articular variation for synovial markers is important for sampling . For microscopic measurements scoring systems have been developed and validated [37, 38], but for macroscopic evaluations there is a need for further comprehensive description and validation of equivalent scoring systems.
Materials and methods
For seven years, from September 1999 to September 2005, 234 patients were recruited from the rheumatology clinic at the Karolinska University Hospital, and three patients from private rheumatologists. For research purposes, 210 patients were recruited, and 27 patients were recruited for clinical routine examination. Except for 10 healthy individuals, all patients had clinically active arthritis or joint pain at the time of arthroscopy. Indications for arthroscopy in clinical routine practice were mainly arthritis of unknown origin (mainly monoarthritis) or arthritis in singular joints without satisfying response to therapy. Projects for research purposes were primarily aimed at learning more about the early course of disease and the molecular mode of action of different anti-rheumatic treatments. Contraindications for arthroscopy were age below 18 years, prosthesis, clotting or bleeding deficiency, known allergy to local anaesthetics and cases where we were unable to communicate appropriately with the patient for psychological reasons or for language difficulties. Further, we did not include patients with septic arthritis, haemarthrosis, joint trauma or mechanical joint complications.
All arthroscopies were performed in the same procedure room, designated for this and other small operative procedures requiring sterility and situated at our outpatient clinic. During most procedures three or more persons were involved; one or two operators (one teaching), one nurse and one assistant nurse (not in sterile dressing) taking care of tissue samples. Rod-lens arthroscopes (Karl Storz Gmbh, Tuttlingen, Germany) of three different dimensions (1.9 mm for proximal interphalangeal, metacarpophalangeal, wrist and elbow joints; 2.4 mm for shoulder, ankle and knee joints, and 4.0 mm for knee joints), all with a 30° angle, were used throughout. Spoon forceps (Karl Storz Gmbh, Tuttlingen, Germany) of different sizes were used to obtain the biopsies, the largest with a diameter of 3.5 mm, was used in knee joints. To minimise the effects of the procedure on the macroscopic appearance of the SM including circulation, no tourniquet was used, anaesthetic drug (xylocain) was used without adrenaline and maximum water pressure was put at 50 cm (for irrigation fluid). All arthroscopies were performed in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration, and where appropriate, ethical permission was given by the ethical committee at the Karolinska Institute, and written consent given by each patient before entering study.
Biopsies were put in cryotubes (Simport Plastics, Quebec, Canada) and frozen in precooled (-70°C) isopentane within two minutes (most often within one minute) after removal. They were stored until sectioned in -70°C. Before sectioning, biopsies were embedded in Tissue-Tek® O.C.T. Compound (Sakura Finetek USA Inc, Torrance, California, USA). All biopsies were cut in -20°C (cryostat setting; 7 μm) and stained with H&E in a standard procedure. The sections were evaluated for adequate histology (inflammation and not subsynovial or fibrotic tissue) before further stainings were performed.
The arthroscopic procedure of the knee joint is detailed below, and is principally the same for other joints. The joint is examined from the outside for signs of inflammation (pain, swelling and hypertrophy of the joint capsule). Two entry portals are then localised (infralateral, supralateral and/or supramedial portals) and anaesthetised using 10 to 15 ml of xylocaine 10 mg/ml without adrenaline for skin and joint capsule. Disinfection and draping of the leg occurs. A minimal skin incision is made with a scalpel (<5 mm) for portals. The arthroscope portal and trocar are introduced and excessive synovial fluid is extracted and stored. The trocar is replaced by the arthroscope, and 10 ml of xylocaine is added in to the joint as it is filled with physiological saline for clear vision. The synovium is inspected systematically (suprapatellar pouch, lateral and medial recesses and gutters, leaving the tibiofemoral joint and posterior cavity of the joint). Water pressure is kept below 30 cm, so as not to interfere with vascularity. Biopsy sites are chosen according to maximal macroscopic inflammation and anatomical site (preferably three sites; one close to the cartilage-pannus-junction and two further away), and photographed.
The entire procedure normally takes 40 to 60 minutes, and because only local anaesthetics and no sedation is used, the patient is able to walk immediately after the procedure. Before leaving the clinic, the patient is informed to avoid water contact on the wounds for two days. In order to quantitate possible complications and help patients after the procedure, the patient is contacted by the rheumatologist who performed the arthroscopy within the next few days. The occurrence of any complications is registered immediately after the arthroscopic procedure, at the following telephone contact and at consecutive contacts with the patients.
Creation and evaluation of a macroscopic scoring system
Eight representative video printer photographs, taken at knee joint arthroscopy procedures, were chosen by one of the authors (EaK) to illustrate various features of macroscopic synovitis and serve as reference images. Scoring was made by EaK in relation to three parameters; hypertrophy, vascularity and synovitis. For each parameter a five point scale (0 to 4) was used.
Seven raters (rater 1 to rater 7) with different experience in arthroscopy were asked to score 50 different joint images that had been selected by EaK, after the scale had been described to each rater by EaK. The order of reading was randomised.
All scores were collected and inter-individual variation registered. Images that produced very variable scores were re-evaluated during a joint session. The eight reference image scores used were revised together. Ten new images were scored by all observers individually. These scores were compared, and a reference score was decided for each of these images.
From the experience gained in this study we prepared instructions for macroscopic scoring including characterised arthroscopic images, the 'Macro-score' [see Additional data files 1 and 2]. A new set of 50 images were scored by all raters at two occasions, with a minimum of 24 hours in between. The scores were analysed by descriptive analysis, including intra- and inter-rater variability and median scores.
Five control-raters with no previous experience of arthroscopy scored the same set of 50 images. They did not receive any further instructions than the Macro-score written instructions. Control-rater scores were analysed by descriptive statistics, including inter-rater variability and comparison to the median scores.
Evaluation of the arthroscopic procedure for feasibility, complications and for yield of biopsies suitable for analysis
Patient characteristics at time of arthroscopy
Number of procedures
Number of patients
52 years (range 20 to 85)
170 women/67 men
Disease duration (mean)
91 months (range 1 to 623)
Arthritis duration (mean)
43.5 weeks (range 0 to 564)
Patients on NSAIDs at arthroscopy
Patients on DMARDs at arthroscopy
99 (88 on methotrexate)
Diagnosis at time of arthroscopy
All patients (n)
Patients with early disease (<12 months) (n)
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
Adult Still's disease
Undifferentiated systemic inflammatory disease with arthritis
Systemic lupus erythematosus
Cutaneous PAN with arthritis
Except for two patients presenting with haemarthrosis three days and two weeks after the arthroscopy, respectively, no major complications were seen including deep vein thrombosis. A minor complication was one wound infection six weeks after arthroscopy at the supralateral portal where the patient had not removed the surgical strips. Intraarticular bleeding during the procedure could complicate biopsy sampling due to loss of vision, especially in small joints. However, in all of these cases bleeding stopped during or soon after the procedure. Pain in the investigated or other joint occurred in a small number of patients and in 12 (3%) cases pain restricted the procedure so that no or fewer biopsies were taken than were originally planned. In one patient pain was considered severe two weeks after the procedure. Additional medical treatment was received and the pain subsided slowly. In one patient the joint was not extending due to an inability to relax, requiring the arthroscopy to be terminated. In 18 procedures (11 knee joints and 7 small or medium-sized joints) we abstained from biopsies as no active synovitis could be visualised. In these cases synovium was either normal or fibrotic as assessed macroscopically. No patient had to stay at the hospital for more than one hour after the procedure, and no long-term complications were seen.
Approved histology per joint
Biopsies approved by histology (%)
Creation and evaluation of a method for macroscopic scoring of synovitis during arthroscopy
Comparison of control-rater scores to median scores of raters 1 to 7
Complications of arthroscopy
Joint infection (%)
Sherman and colleagues ‡
Szachnowski and colleagues 
Kuzmanova and colleagues 
Reece and colleagues 
Wollaston and colleagues 
Smith and colleagues 
nd (studied pain in conjunction with AS)
Baeten and colleagues 
Gerlag and Tak 
Kane and colleagues ☼
af Klint (present study)
Despite the use of local anaesthesia, pain may still be a problem. In a study of 50 patients  pain was reported in 50% during the procedure, and in 67% postoperatively. In that study, the best results for pain were seen in those who had femoral nerve blocks (most had no pain, and none had moderate or severe pain during or after the procedure) as opposed to local anaesthesia (none reported no pain during the procedure, severe pain was reported in 14% during and 10% after the procedure). Despite this only one patient declined to have a future second arthroscopy. In our study all received local anaesthesia. Occurrence of pain was notified in each case by the physician responsible for the procedure, but not captured in a formal protocol; we had to prematurely terminate the procedure in 3% of cases due to pain during the procedure. Only in one patient was there a severe pain that lasted for two weeks after the procedure. Also, the large majority of patients who were asked to a second arthroscopy consented to this procedure, indicating that the subjective experience of pain was not high. For future arthroscopic investigations, however, we advise that formal protocols for measurement of pain are introduced.
The yield of biopsies was highly satisfactory from the procedures directed towards the knee joints (94%) and acceptable from ankles joints (83%). The yield from small joints was, however, only 34%. This may be an obstacle that is possible to overcome as other groups have reported higher success rates for small joints including metacarpophalangeal joints . As we were not able to reach this level of success, we draw the conclusion that sampling small joints requires special skills and training programs, and that new investigators should be aware of the difficulties. In our case, we decided to restrict the studies mainly to knees in studies where repeated biopsy sampling of the same joint was required [46–48, 50, 51].
In polyarticular arthritis patients a high degree of clinical interarticular variation of inflammation between different joints is clinically well recognised. This variation also occurs within the macroscopic and microscopic patterns of the synovium in the individual joint [36, 39, 58–64]. Some studies point to the correlation of macro and microscopic features [12, 36, 65–67], while others support that variation is limited [59, 60, 64, 68, 69]. To cope with this issue four main principles of sampling the synovium in large joints like the knee have been described: sampling predetermined sites ; sampling according to macroscopic signs of inflammation ; sampling predetermined sites and according to macroscopic signs of inflammation ; and sampling a limited number of predetermined sites to represent the whole joint [58, 60, 68]. Some studies point to the cartilage pannus junction [36, 70, 71] as the site of most active inflammation, although not in all aspects  implying the special significance of this region. Against this background, we have chosen to sample tissues based on maximum macroscopic inflammation far from and close to cartilage. When performing consecutive studies with repeated procedures, we prioritised sampling of the biopsies close to the same sites as the first. Samples from the same site are then compared for longitudinal outcome comparisons. To aid in this effort, we have made a simplified map of the knee joint (Figure 1) where macroscopic characteristics and biopsy sites are marked. Each site is also photographically documented by the arthroscope, now digitally stored as opposed to earlier video printer photographs.
There is an obvious need to correlate macroscopic findings and microscopic/molecular analysis of inflamed joints. Several different macroscopic scales have been used [36, 65, 73] and have been found to correlate with other SM features [12, 36, 65–67, 74, 75]. Notably few studies have been published on intra and inter-variation of different raters in macroscopic scoring. This issue was addressed by Reece and colleagues  using 44 video recordings of the arthroscopic procedure. Three observers reached good correlation for villous formations, the most pronounced form of hypertrophy, in RA; however, the results were not as good in spondylarthritis patients. Granulations and capillary hyperaemia were not reliable in this study. This is interesting as in the study by Lindblad and Hedfors , hyperaemia was the most important feature corresponding to microscopic changes, as also noted by oral surgeons . Before reliable correlations can be made between macro and microscopic scoring systems these parameters need to be studied more extensively. This was one reason for undertaking this study.
In our study we chose not only to score global synovitis, but also to individually measure its main features; hypertrophy and vascularity. Hyperaemia was not included as an individual parameter due to its intrinsic variation physiologically as well as observationally. However, hyperaemia was included in the global synovitis score, in which all observed features of inflammation were included. Thus the score adds more information to the history of the synovitis as a global synovitis score of 0 is not always normal, but also includes previously active fibrotic changes scored as hypertrophy. This score set can be used for scoring entire joints where a video perhaps would be of greater value, but our aim was primarily to get low intra and inter-rater score variation in scoring biopsy sites for research purposes. In this study we report that intra-individual scoring variation was low; at the second scoring 99% of all scores were within one point of the first scores using a five-point scale. Further, a perfect match between first and second scoring sessions was reached in 70% of scores, and no single parameter had a substantially greater intrinsic variability. We also showed low inter-rater variation: 1036 of 1050 individual scores (98.7%) were within one point from the median score. The range was two points or less in 139 of 150 (92.7%) image scores. These numbers could presumably be improved with further training.
We also constructed an easy to use set of instructions for macroscopic evaluation, the Macro-score [see Additional data files 1 and 2]. These written instructions were tested on the same set of 50 photographs by five control-raters with no previous experience of arthroscopy. Without any other directions they scored well; between 41% and 56% of individual scores were equal to the median scores of the raters from the first group, and between 82% and 100% of scores were not more than one point from the median. The time to understand the score and score 50 images was about 2 to 2.5 hours, suggesting that the Macro-score is reliable and easy to use.
A weakness in this study was the lack of maximal inflammation scores. We presume that this is due to the population studied – we only included chronic polyarthritis patients, and no acute forms such as septic arthritis or gout. Given the clinical activity in these forms of arthritis, we would probably see more active synovitis in such images. At the other end of the spectrum we had a number of images depicting no inflammation, also from healthy individuals serving as controls. Interestingly, also healthy individuals with no history of joint problems could be seen to have minor inflammatory changes, in line with our earlier experience .
It is our experience that rheumatological arthroscopy is a safe method with very few complications. For knee joints it is a reliable method to retrieve representative tissue in clinical longitudinal studies. We also created an easy to use macroscopic score that needs to be validated against other methodologies, which we hope will be of value in further developing international standards in this area.
haematoxylin and eosin
We would like to express our gratitude to AFA Insurance, the Swedish Rheumatism Association and King Gustaf V's 80-year foundation for financial support of this study. We also thank Marianne Engström, Ola Börjesson, Annika Nordin, Per Larsson, Jóel Kristinn Jóelsson and Anu Lips for valuable help in evaluating synovial images, and Johan Askling for appreciated statistical advice.
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