A fascinating landmark study of placebo surgery for knee osteoarthritis
PainSci summary of Moseley 2002 ★★★★★?5-star ratings are for sentinel studies, excellent experiments with meaningful results. Ratings are a highly subjective opinion, and subject to revision at any time. If you think this paper has been incorrectly rated, please let me know.
In this landmark and fascinating study, people with osteoarthritis improved equally well regardless of whether they received a real surgical procedure or a sham, which is a particularly striking example of the placebo effect and implies that belief can have an effect even on a “mechanical” knee problem. From the abstract: “In this controlled trial involving patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, the outcomes after arthroscopic lavage or arthroscopic debridement were no better than those after a placebo procedure.” In 2008, these findings were fully supported by a Cochrane Collaboration review (Laupattarakasem) which concluded that “there is ‘gold’ level evidence that arthoscopic debridement has no benefit,” and by New England Journal of Medicine (Kirkley) which reported that “surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee provides no additional benefit to optimized physical and medical therapy.”
BACKGROUND: Many patients report symptomatic relief after undergoing arthroscopy of the knee for osteoarthritis, but it is unclear how the procedure achieves this result. We conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of arthroscopy for osteoarthritis of the knee.
METHODS: A total of 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned to receive arthroscopic debridement, arthroscopic lavage, or placebo surgery. Patients in the placebo group received skin incisions and underwent a simulated debridement without insertion of the arthroscope. Patients and assessors of outcome were blinded to the treatment-group assignment. Outcomes were assessed at multiple points over a 24-month period with the use of five self-reported scores--three on scales for pain and two on scales for function--and one objective test of walking and stair climbing. A total of 165 patients completed the trial.
RESULTS: At no point did either of the intervention groups report less pain or better function than the placebo group. For example, mean (+/-SD) scores on the Knee-Specific Pain Scale (range, 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating more severe pain) were similar in the placebo, lavage, and debridement groups: 48.9+/-21.9, 54.8+/-19.8, and 51.7+/-22.4, respectively, at one year (P=0.14 for the comparison between placebo and lavage; P=0.51 for the comparison between placebo and debridement) and 51.6+/-23.7, 53.7+/-23.7, and 51.4+/-23.2, respectively, at two years (P=0.64 and P=0.96, respectively). Furthermore, the 95 percent confidence intervals for the differences between the placebo group and the intervention groups exclude any clinically meaningful difference.
CONCLUSIONS: In this controlled trial involving patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, the outcomes after arthroscopic lavage or arthroscopic debridement were no better than those after a placebo procedure.
- “Arthroscopic debridement for knee osteoarthritis,” an article in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2008.
- “A Randomized Trial of Arthroscopic Surgery for Osteoarthritis of the Knee,” an article in New England Journal of Medicine, 2008.
These eight articles on PainScience.com cite Moseley 2002 as a source:
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- PS Save Yourself from Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome! — Patellofemoral pain syndrome (aka runner’s knee) explained and discussed in great detail, including every imaginable self-treatment option and all the available scientific evidence
- PS Your Back Is Not Out of Alignment — Debunking the obsession with alignment, posture, and other biomechanical bogeymen as major causes of pain
- PS Should You Get A Lube Job for Your Arthritic Knee? — Reviewing the science of injecting artificial synovial fluid, especially for patellofemoral pain
- PS Surprising Pain Science — Counterintuitive results and the fallibility of “common sense” about pain, injury, and rehab
- PS Knee Surgery Sure is Useless! — The New England Journal of Medicine “piles on” with still more evidence that arthroscopic knee surgery for osteoarthritis is about as helpful as a Nerf hammer