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Knee Pain Health Center

Study Questions Value of Common Knee Surgery

Procedure to repair a torn meniscus worked no better than a fake one to ease lingering pain
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Brenda Goodman

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 26, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Improvements in knee pain following a common orthopedic procedure appear to be largely due to the placebo effect, a new Finnish study suggests.

The research, which was published Dec. 26 in the New England Journal of Medicine, has weighty implications for the 700,000 patients who have arthroscopic surgery each year in the United States to repair a torn meniscus. A meniscus is a C-shaped pad of cartilage that cushions the knee joint.

For a meniscal repair, orthopedic surgeons use a camera and tiny instruments inserted through small incisions around the knee to shave damaged tissue away. The idea is that clearing sharp and unstable debris out of the joint should relieve pain.

But mounting evidence suggests that, for many patients, the procedure just doesn't work as intended.

"There have been several trials now, including this one, where surgeons have examined whether meniscal tear surgery accomplishes anything, basically, and the answer through all those studies is no, it doesn't," said Dr. David Felson, a professor of medicine and public health at Boston University. He was not involved in the new research.

For the new study, doctors recruited patients between the ages of 35 and 65 who'd had a meniscal tear and knee pain for at least three months to have an arthroscopic procedure to examine the knee joint. If a patient didn't also have arthritis, and the surgeon viewing the knee determined they were eligible for the study, he opened an envelope in the operating room with further instructions.

At that point, 70 patients had some of their damaged meniscus removed, while 76 other patients had nothing further done. But surgeons did everything they could to make the sham procedure seem like the real thing. They asked for the same instruments, they moved and pressed on the knee as they otherwise would, and they used mechanical instruments with the blades removed to simulate the sights and sounds of a meniscal repair. They even timed the procedures to make sure one wasn't shorter than the other. Patients weren't told if they'd had their knee repaired or not.

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