Surgery for persistent knee pain? Not so fast

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For patients with knee pain from a torn medial meniscus, but no osteoarthritis, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy may not be necessary.




Do not refer patients with a degenerative medial meniscus tear for arthroscopic partial meniscectomy because outcomes are no better than those of conservative treatment.1

Strength of recommendation

B: Based on a single high-quality randomized control trial.

Sihvonen R, Paavola M, Malmivaara A, et al; Finnish Degenerative Meniscal Lesion Study (FIDELITY) Group. Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy versus sham surgery for a degenerative meniscal tear. N Engl J Med. 2013;369:2515-2524.

Illustrative case

A 40-year-old man comes to your office for follow-up of medial left knee pain he’s had for 3 months that hasn’t responded to conservative treatment. The pain developed gradually, without a history of trauma. The patient has no signs of degenerative joint disease on x-ray but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals a tear of the medial meniscus. Should you refer him for meniscectomy?

Patients and doctors alike tend to look for a treatment that will “fix” the problem, which may be why we have continued to use arthroscopic partial meniscectomy to attempt to relieve symptoms of meniscal tears despite a lack of evidence to support the practice.

Guidelines from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons state that the evidence for medial meniscectomy in patients with a torn meniscus and osteoarthritis (OA) is inconclusive; the organization offers no guidelines for patients with a torn meniscus who don’t have OA.2 The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine states that there is insufficient evidence to support arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for symptomatic, torn medial menisci for select patients and “the vast majority of patients [with medial meniscal tears] do not require surgery.”3 Previous studies have concluded that arthroscopic surgery for OA of the knee provides no additional benefit to optimized physical and medical therapy.4 Furthermore, research by Katz et al5 shows that meniscectomy provides no benefit over conservative treatment in functional status at 6 months in patients with OA and a medial meniscal tear.

That said, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy is still the most common orthopedic procedure in the United States.1 Although its use has decreased over the last 15 years, it is performed nearly 700,000 times annually at a cost of approximately $4 billion.1,6,7 Like any surgical procedure, meniscectomy carries a risk of complications. In the double-blind, randomized trial reported on here, Sihvonen et al1 compared meniscectomy to a sham procedure for patients with knee pain, but not OA.

STUDY SUMMARY: Meniscectomy and sham surgery 
are equally effective

Sihvonen et al1 conducted a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial at 5 orthopedic clinics in Finland. Patients ages 35 to 65 years were enrolled if they had clinical findings of a medial meniscus tear and knee pain for >3 months that wasn’t relieved by conservative treatment. The trial excluded patients who had an obvious traumatic onset of symptoms; clinical or radiological evidence of knee OA; a locked knee that could not be straightened; knee instability or decreased range of motion; previous surgery on the affected knee; fracture within the past 12 months on the affected limb; or other notable pathology on MRI or during arthroscopy.

Before randomization, 160 patients underwent diagnostic arthroscopy. Fourteen patients were excluded: 6 because they did not actually have a medial meniscal tear, one because he also had a lateral meniscus tear, 3 due to a major chondral flap, 2 who had already undergone meniscal repair, and 2 due to an osteochondral microfracture.

At the end of the diagnostic arthroscopy, each patient was blindly randomized to arthroscopic partial meniscectomy or sham surgery. To simulate the meniscectomy procedure, the surgeon similarly manipulated the knee, made comparable noise and vibration using tools and suction, and ensured that the patient was kept in the operating room (OR) for a comparable time. Only the orthopedic surgeon and OR staff were aware of which surgery the patient underwent, and these staff members were not included in further treatment or follow-up. After the procedure, all patients received the same walking aids and instructions for a graduated exercise program.

The 70 patients in the meniscectomy group and the 76 in the sham surgery group were similar in age (mean: 52 years), sex, body mass index, and duration of pain (mean: 10 months). Patients in both groups also had similar tears noted on arthroscopy.

Three primary outcomes were measured before surgery and at 12 months: knee pain, knee symptoms and function, and quality of life. Knee pain after exercise was evaluated on a 0 to 10 scale, with 0 indicating no pain. The validated Lysholm knee score was used to assess knee symptoms and function and the Western Ontario Meniscal Evaluation Tool (WOMET) was utilized to evaluate quality of life; both are 100-point scales in which lower scores indicate more severe symptoms.

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