Conference Coverage

Physical therapy underused for knee osteoarthritis




AMSTERDAM – Physical therapy is underused as a first conservative treatment option for knee osteoarthritis, according to a review of data of more than 130,000 men and women serving in the U.S. military.

Data from the Military Health System Data Repository (MDR) show that clinical practice is often out of step with guidelines, as many patients are treated with intra-articular corticosteroid injections rather than physical therapy.


Within a week of an initial episode of knee OA, patients were four times more likely to be given steroid injections than receive physical therapy (14,290 vs. 3,177 patients), although a similar number of patients received injections or physical therapy within 30 days (8,228 vs. 8,407) and 90 days (9,125 vs. 10,059). Of the patients given injections early, 12,311 received them on the day of the index episode.

“What was interesting, anecdotally, was how few patients had been to physical therapy prior to surgery and how many of them had had injections before physical therapy,” Dr. Dan Rhon, director of physical therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center, Houston, said in an interview at the World Congress on Osteoarthritis.

“We wanted to look at the practice patterns because guidelines generally say that you should try physical therapy before surgery and that invasive procedures such as injections should be utilized further down the road,” he said at the meeting, which was sponsored by Osteoarthritis Research Society International.

Dr. Rhon noted that in a study of clinical practice patterns over a 5-year period from the United Healthcare Database, researchers found that physical rehabilitation was used in about one-quarter of patients, with 10% of those who went on to have surgery receiving physical therapy specific for OA, and 16% had been given intra-articular injections (Arthroscopy. 2014;30:65-71).

Results from the MDR data, which considered records from 2008 to 2013 and 1 year of follow-up, now show similar findings with 29% of patients receiving physical rehabilitation, 17.5% prior to knee arthroplasty, and 36% of patients receiving corticosteroid injections first.

What this shows, Dr. Rhon said, is that clinical practice patterns in the Military Health System do not appear to be following established guidelines. “It’s a little bit worrisome because most of these patients should at least have a trial of conservative management.” Perhaps there is some confusion over what constitutes conservative management, but when there is a choice between physical therapy and corticosteroid injections, it seems that the latter is more commonly being selected. Patients themselves could also be opting for injections over physical rehabilitation, so there may be a need for education on what options are available before surgical intervention.

Further research is needed to examine the clinical outcomes of this and perhaps look at how cost savings could be made if clinical practice more closely adhered to the OA guidelines. Looking at a longer follow-up period, say 2-5 years post diagnosis, might also give a better reflection of the use of physical therapy before surgery.

Dr. Rhon had no financial disclosures.

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