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Study: Noninvasive Treatment May Relieve Painful Knee Arthritis

Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery Say Some Patients Saw Dramatic Improvement in Pain and Function with Custom Knee Brace

New York—July 23, 2012

Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) have launched a study that could lead to a powerful, noninvasive treatment for painful knee osteoarthritis (OA).  Howard Hillstrom, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Leon Root, M.D., Motion Analysis Laboratory are enrolling people in a study to see if “conservative realignment therapy” helps relieve knee pain and improve function.

The goal is to gently alter individuals’ knee alignment with a light and flexible custom-fitted knee brace.  Based on previous studies, the HSS researchers believe that realigning the knee using the custom brace can significantly reduce pain and has the potential to slow the progression of osteoarthritis.

Knee osteoarthritis is the most common disabling condition, affecting an estimated 9.3 million people in the United States.  Patients with severe knee OA account for more than 580,000 total knee replacement surgeries in the U.S. each year.

“Studies suggest that only a small fraction of the people suffering from osteoarthritis need operative treatments,” said Dr. Hillstrom, director of the Motion Analysis Laboratory.  “One research group found that approximately half a million knee OA patients will require an operation in a given year, while more than 5 million patients will require non-operative treatment.”

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but if the lightweight brace is shown to help people, it will be a significant development in the primary care of knee OA, according to Dr. Hillstrom. “Such noninvasive treatment is important for people who cannot take NSAID medications such as ibuprofen because of side effects, and for the millions of patients who are not candidates for knee replacement surgery,” he said. “If the brace is shown to slow down the progression of OA, it may also help delay joint replacement surgery.  Both disease prevalence and the expected number of total joint replacements are projected to significantly increase due to the aging baby boomer.”

The HSS study is recruiting individuals who have osteoarthritis in the inner area of their knee, known as the medial compartment. The objective is to realign the knee to take pressure off the arthritic area.

Participants are fitted for a custom brace and followed for a year. Nine patients who have completed the one-year study so far have shown improvement in both pain and function, according to Dr. Hillstrom.  Based on the 17 subjects who have entered the study to date, significant pain reduction resulted after one week of knee brace use. Preliminary findings have been presented at several professional conferences, including the Osteoarthritis Research Society International meeting in Brussels (2010), the Gait and Clinical Movement Analysis Society (2011) and the Orthopedic Research Society (2011) and published in two journal articles: Clinical Orthopedics and Related Research (2011) and Lower Extremity Review (2010).

“The study brace is a lightweight and flexible device that should not be confused with the clunky components and large metal bars of braces from years past,” Dr. Hillstrom noted.  “Patients can wear this brace under their pants, and it does not interfere with activities, such as walking or riding an exercise bicycle.”  They are asked to wear it for a minimum of six hours daily for five days a week.  But researchers have found that people report wearing it more often, and some individuals wear their brace all day.

Sixty-three-year-old Robert Blau, a math professor with a Ph.D. who teaches at Baruch College in Manhattan, says the brace has enabled him to get rid of the cane he was using to walk. He has experienced a major reduction in pain. While he used to take ibuprofen several times a day, he now takes it once every few weeks, if at all, he says.

Mr. Blau, who lives in Westchester, considers himself lucky to have found out about the study. “I couldn’t have continued commuting and teaching without the brace. It’s made my professional life a lot easier,” he says. “I’m on my feet a lot when I teach.  Before using the brace I had to sit down for most of my lecture.  Now I remain standing for the entire class. In addition, it’s so much easier to go up and down the stairs between classes.”  Mr. Blau says he can walk faster and longer than before. He now walks, in less than half an hour, more than a mile each way to his house of worship each Saturday.

When the study was over for him in March 2011, he decided to continue wearing the brace every day during most of his waking hours.  He feels that although he may eventually need a knee replacement, the brace is buying him time. “My goal is to wait as long as possible for knee replacement to take advantage of the technological advances we will surely see in the field.”

Study participants fill out surveys to analyze their level of pain and ability to function when they start the study, four months into the study, and at one year. In addition to the surveys, they engage in a process called 3D motion analysis that reveals how their muscles and joints are working while performing different activities.

In the Motion Analysis Lab, researchers attach bright surface markers to different parts of the individual’s body. Twelve cameras around the room are tracking the markers, recording what the body is doing. “We merge the images from all of the cameras and create a three dimensional picture of the person performing activities such as walking and climbing stairs,” Dr. Hillstrom explains. “Computer programs are used to analyze the subject’s movements and reveal how one’s muscles and joints are functioning.  Coupled with structural data from lower limb X-rays, pain experienced while performing activities of daily living, and the body’s biomechanical function while walking, the investigators are learning how the patient with OA responds to the improved lower limb alignment (medial compartment offloading) provided by the brace.”

Motion analysis allows researchers to objectively measure the gains achieved following medical or surgical intervention -- in this case, the use of the brace.

Dr. Hillstrom says the knee brace study is the first of many the Motion Analysis Lab will be conducting to find new and better treatments for knee osteoarthritis. Anyone interested in seeing if he or she qualifies for the study is invited to call 212-606-1215.

Learn more about the study and see the Motion Analysis Laboratory on WCBS-TV2 News.






About HSS | Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the ninth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S.News & World Report (2018-2019). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures. People from all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries travelled to receive care at HSS. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The culture of innovation is accelerating at HSS as 130 new idea submissions were made to the Global Innovation Institute in 2017 (almost 3x the submissions in 2015). The HSS Education Institute is the world’s leading provider of education on the topic on musculoskeletal health, with its online learning platform offering more than 600 courses to more than 21,000 medical professional members worldwide. Through HSS Global Ventures, the institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.


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