Self-directed Digital Exercise Plan Improves Knee OA

Adults with knee osteoarthritis (OA) who participated in a self-directed, web-based exercise program with automated text-message reminders and encouragement for 6 months showed significant improvement in overall knee pain and physical function, compared with patients who received web-based OA information alone, in a randomized trial of 180 individuals.

The results support a role for web-based exercise intervention to improve knee OA patients’ access to recommended exercises and to assist clinicians in managing patients on a population level, according to the first author of the study, Rachel Kate Nelligan, of the University of Melbourne, and colleagues. Their report is in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Our free-to-access, unsupervised program could serve as an entry-level intervention, with participants who do not experience clinical benefits progressing to subsequent steps for more intensive, personalized management,” they said. “Such an approach has the potential to better distribute limited health care resources and reduce demand for contact with health professionals, thus improving access for those requiring it.”

Only two other randomized, clinical trials have evaluated web-based interventions for OA without contact from health professionals, according to the authors. While one of those did not find any differences in outcomes at 4 months when comparing a self-directed progressive lower-limb strength, flexibility, and walking program to being on a wait list, a separate trial evaluating a 9-module physical activity program in adults with knee and/or hip OA vs. a wait-list control group found evidence for efficacy for physical function at 3 months, but not quality of life or function in sport and recreation.

For the current study, researchers recruited 206 adults in Australia with clinically diagnosed knee OA via online advertisements and a volunteer database. Participants were aged 45 years or older, and reported activity-related knee pain and morning knee stiffness lasting at least 30 minutes; knee pain on most days for at least 3 months; and average knee pain severity of 4 or higher on an 11-point numeric rating scale in the previous week. In addition, participants were required to own a cell phone with text messaging, have Internet access, and be able to complete assessments.

Patients randomized to the intervention of the My Knee Exercise website received web-based information about OA and the value of exercise, with a 24-week self-directed program of strengthening exercises plus automated text messages to motivate behavior changes and encourage adherence to the exercise program. Controls received access to web-based information about OA and the value of exercise, but without the prescribed exercises or texts. Patients in the intervention group received an average of 60 text messages during the study period, and the average reply rate was 73%.

The primary study outcomes were changes in overall knee pain based on a numeric 0-10 rating scale and changes in physical function based on the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index 0-68 scale. A total of 180 participants completed both primary outcome measures at 24 weeks. The average age of the participants was 60 years, and 61% were women.

After 24 weeks, the intervention group averaged significantly greater improvement of 1.6 units for overall knee pain (P < .001) and 5.2 units for physical function (P = .002), compared with controls.

In addition, the proportion of patients who exceeded the minimal clinically important difference in pain improvement of at least 1.8 units was significantly higher in the intervention group, compared with controls (72.1% vs. 42.0%; P < .001). Similarly, more intervention-group patients achieved the minimal clinically important difference in WOMAC physical function of improvement of at least 6 units (68.0% vs. 40.8%; P < .001).

Secondary outcomes included additional measures of knee pain, knee function for sport and recreation, quality of life, physical activity, self-efficacy, overall improvement, and treatment satisfaction. Between-group differences favored the intervention on most measures, including Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score subscales for pain, sports/recreation, and quality of life; health-related quality of life; Arthritis Self-Efficacy Scale (ASES) pain subscale, individual change since baseline, and overall patient satisfaction. “Changes in PASE [Physical Activity Scale for the Elderly], ASES function, and SEE [Self Efficacy Exercise] were similar in both groups,” the researchers said.

No serious adverse events were reported by any study participants. Eight patients in the intervention group reported knee pain during the study, compared with one of the controls, and use of pain medications was similar between the groups, except that more control participants used massage, heat or cold, and topical anti-inflammatories.

The results suggest that a majority of participants in the intervention group improved pain and function without the need for in-person contact with a health professional, the researchers noted. However, more intensive management may be needed to support the 30% who did not benefit from the unsupervised approach, they said.

The study findings were limited by several factors, including the potential bias of a volunteer study population, possible lack of generalizability to individuals with lower levels of education or self-efficacy, and lack of direct comparison between web-based intervention and clinician-delivered intervention, the researchers noted.

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, whose fellowships supported two of the authors. Lead author Nelligan disclosed a PhD scholarship from the Australian Government Research Training Program and personal fees from the University of Melbourne unrelated to the current study.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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