Clinician Article

Exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee.

  • Fransen M
  • McConnell S
  • Harmer AR
  • Van der Esch M
  • Simic M
  • Bennell KL
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Jan 9;1:CD004376. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004376.pub3. (Review)
PMID: 25569281
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  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Surgery - Orthopaedics
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Knee osteoarthritis (OA) is a major public health issue because it causes chronic pain, reduces physical function and diminishes quality of life. Ageing of the population and increased global prevalence of obesity are anticipated to dramatically increase the prevalence of knee OA and its associated impairments. No cure for knee OA is known, but exercise therapy is among the dominant non-pharmacological interventions recommended by international guidelines.

OBJECTIVES: To determine whether land-based therapeutic exercise is beneficial for people with knee OA in terms of reduced joint pain or improved physical function and quality of life.

SEARCH METHODS: Five electronic databases were searched, up until May 2013.

SELECTION CRITERIA: All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) randomly assigning individuals and comparing groups treated with some form of land-based therapeutic exercise (as opposed to exercise conducted in the water) with a non-exercise group or a non-treatment control group.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Three teams of two review authors independently extracted data, assessed risk of bias for each study and assessed the quality of the body of evidence for each outcome using the GRADE (Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation) approach. We conducted analyses on continuous outcomes (pain, physical function and quality of life) immediately after treatment and on dichotomous outcomes (proportion of study withdrawals) at the end of the study; we also conducted analyses on the sustained effects of exercise on pain and function (two to six months, and longer than six months).

MAIN RESULTS: In total, we extracted data from 54 studies. Overall, 19 (20%) studies reported adequate random sequence generation and allocation concealment and adequately accounted for incomplete outcome data; we considered these studies to have an overall low risk of bias. Studies were largely free from selection bias, but research results may be vulnerable to performance and detection bias, as only four of the RCTs reported blinding of participants to treatment allocation, and, although most RCTs reported blinded outcome assessment, pain, physical function and quality of life were participant self-reported.High-quality evidence from 44 trials (3537 participants) indicates that exercise reduced pain (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.49, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.39 to -0.59) immediately after treatment. Pain was estimated at 44 points on a 0 to 100-point scale (0 indicated no pain) in the control group; exercise reduced pain by an equivalent of 12 points (95% CI 10 to 15 points). Moderate-quality evidence from 44 trials (3913 participants) showed that exercise improved physical function (SMD -0.52, 95% CI -0.39 to -0.64) immediately after treatment. Physical function was estimated at 38 points on a 0 to 100-point scale (0 indicated no loss of physical function) in the control group; exercise improved physical function by an equivalent of 10 points (95% CI 8 to 13 points). High-quality evidence from 13 studies (1073 participants) revealed that exercise improved quality of life (SMD 0.28, 95% CI 0.15 to 0.40) immediately after treatment. Quality of life was estimated at 43 points on a 0 to 100-point scale (100 indicated best quality of life) in the control group; exercise improved quality of life by an equivalent of 4 points (95% CI 2 to 5 points).High-quality evidence from 45 studies (4607 participants) showed a comparable likelihood of withdrawal from exercise allocation (event rate 14%) compared with the control group (event rate 15%), and this difference was not significant: odds ratio (OR) 0.93 (95% CI 0.75 to 1.15). Eight studies reported adverse events, all of which were related to increased knee or low back pain attributed to the exercise intervention provided. No study reported a serious adverse event.In addition, 12 included studies provided two to six-month post-treatment sustainability data on 1468 participants for knee pain and on 1279 (10 studies) participants for physical function. These studies indicated sustainability of treatment effect for pain (SMD -0.24, 95% CI -0.35 to -0.14), with an equivalent reduction of 6 (3 to 9) points on 0 to 100-point scale, and of physical function (SMD -0.15 95% CI -0.26 to -0.04), with an equivalent improvement of 3 (1 to 5) points on 0 to 100-point scale.Marked variability was noted across included studies among participants recruited, symptom duration, exercise interventions assessed and important aspects of study methodology. Individually delivered programmes tended to result in greater reductions in pain and improvements in physical function, compared to class-based exercise programmes or home-based programmes; however between-study heterogeneity was marked within the individually provided treatment delivery subgroup.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: High-quality evidence indicates that land-based therapeutic exercise provides short-term benefit that is sustained for at least two to six months after cessation of formal treatment in terms of reduced knee pain, and moderate-quality evidence shows improvement in physical function among people with knee OA. The magnitude of the treatment effect would be considered moderate (immediate) to small (two to six months) but comparable with estimates reported for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Confidence intervals around demonstrated pooled results for pain reduction and improvement in physical function do not exclude a minimal clinically important treatment effect. Since the participants in most trials were aware of their treatment, this may have contributed to their improvement. Despite the lack of blinding we did not downgrade the quality of evidence for risk of performance or detection bias. This reflects our belief that further research in this area is unlikely to change the findings of our review.

Clinical Comments

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)

This systematic review from a reputable source provides actionable evidence that a low cost intervention targeting a common condition improves patient oriented outcomes.

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