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Seeing a physical therapist can reduce the odds of having surgery

When knee pain occurs, additional interventions are usually needed, which can range from noninvasive options like physical therapy to more intense procedures like surgery. Which option you choose can have a significant impact on your long-term outcome and the chances that you will eventually undergo additional interventions as well. To show you how this can play out, we discuss the findings of a recent study that evaluated outcomes in patients with both knee osteoarthritis and meniscus damage.

Over 7,000 patients monitored for more than two years

Knee osteoarthritis is a painful condition in which protective cartilage lining the end of bones gradually wears away. It is one of the most common causes of knee pain, particularly in older individuals, as it can affect up to 50% of those aged 45 and older. Damage to the meniscus—a crescent-shaped structure that acts as a cushion and absorbs shock in the knee—is also common, and the two conditions frequently occur together, with research showing that about 91% of knee osteoarthritis patients aged ≥50 years also having meniscal damage.

Some patients with these conditions will be treated conservatively, usually through a targeted physical therapy program that aims to reduce pain and improve physical function. But many others will undergo a procedure called knee arthroscopy instead, which is a minimally invasive procedure that involves several small incisions used to guide a camera and several instruments to view the structures of the knee and possibly make repairs. Although studies have shown that knee arthroscopy is not beneficial for patients with knee osteoarthritis, it remains one of the most commonly used procedures. In addition, this research did not focus on patients with both knee osteoarthritis and meniscal damage. With this in mind, investigators performed a study to investigate whether undergoing physical therapy or knee arthroscopy affected the chances of eventually having an additional knee surgery.

For the study, researchers looked for active individuals aged 45 years and older with both knee osteoarthritis and meniscal damage who were treated with knee arthroscopy or physical therapy only. This search led to 7,026 patients fitting the necessary criteria, with 69% undergoing knee arthroscopy and 31% undergoing physical therapy only. These patients were monitored for over two years to track whether they ended up having a more invasive surgical procedure (i.e., partial or total knee replacement, or fusion) and if their initial treatment had an effect on this.

Knee arthroscopy increases chances of having knee surgery by 30%

Results showed that patients who were older and who had multiple health conditions were more likely to undergo physical therapy only. More importantly, patients who had a knee arthroscopy were 30% more likely to require an invasive surgical procedure at some point in the future, and this difference was considered significant. In addition, the use of knee arthroscopy did not have any noticeable impact on the time to a major knee surgery, which is one of the primary reasons it is recommended.

Other research has also failed to detect any important differences between pain levels and the functional status of these patients when they undergo knee arthroscopy versus physical therapy. Based on these findings, it appears that knee arthroscopy does not provide any clear benefit for patients with knee osteoarthritis and meniscal damage, and it may increase the chances of having a major surgical procedure. Therefore, if you are currently dealing with knee pain that could be related to these conditions, we strongly recommend seeing a physical therapist first and to carefully consider the risks and benefits associated with a knee arthroscopy. Doing so could help you avoid expensive or unnecessary procedures while helping you retain and improve your knee function.

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