Arthroscopic Knee Surgery Not Cost-Effective

By Pat Anson, Editor

Another study is raising doubts about the value of arthroscopic knee surgery, a procedure that is routinely used to treat osteoarthritis and other chronic knee problems. Researchers at Western University in Canada say the surgery provides no additional benefit compared to physical therapy, exercise and medication.

Over 250 million people worldwide suffer from knee osteoarthritis (OA), which causes thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage. Nearly 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 have some degree of knee OA.

Investigators at Western’s Bone and Joint Institute analyzed the cost-effectiveness of arthroscopic  surgery, a type of “keyhole” surgery in which the surgeon makes a small incision in the knee and inserts a tiny camera and instruments to diagnose and repair damaged ligaments or torn meniscus.

Over 850,000 arthroscopies are performed every year to relieve knee pain in the UK and the United States alone.

"We previously showed in a randomized clinical trial that arthroscopy for knee osteoarthritis provided no benefit over optimized non-operative care. Despite that finding, and subsequent similar studies, the surgery is still commonly performed," says Trevor Birmingham, the Canada Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation at Western's Faculty of Health Sciences. "That's why we felt it was important to do the accompanying cost-effectiveness analysis."

The two-year study, published in the journal BMJ Open, found that arthroscopic knee surgery is “not an economically attractive treatment option” compared to non-operative treatments such as physical therapy, exercise and medication. Depending on insurance, hospital charges and the surgeon, arthroscopic surgeries cost about $4,000.

“Patients who received non-operative therapies showed similar improvements in pain, function, and quality of life compared to those who also received surgery, at a significantly lower cost,” says lead author Jacquelyn Marsh, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Health Economics at Western University.

While most people do feel better after knee arthroscopy, randomized clinical trials found that patients improve to a similar extent when they receive non-operative treatments or ‘sham’ surgery, where the patient receives anesthesia but doesn’t actually receive the surgical treatment.

“When that body of evidence is coupled with the present economic analysis, one has to question whether health care funds would be better spent elsewhere,” said Birmingham.

A 2014 report by a German health organization also found arthroscopic  surgery does not relieve pain any better than physical therapy or over-the-counter pain medications.

Another study published last year in the The BMJ called the benefit of knee surgery “inconsequential.” Researchers in Denmark and Sweden reviewed 9 studies on arthroscopic knee surgeries and found that the surgery provided pain relief for up to six months, but without any significant benefit in physical function. Risks from the surgery are rare, but include deep vein thrombosis, infection, pulmonary embolism, and death.

"It is difficult to support or justify a procedure with the potential for serious harm, even if it is rare, when that procedure offers patients no more benefit than placebo," wrote Professor Andy Carr from Oxford University’s Institute of Musculoskeletal Sciences in an accompanying editorial.

Carr said thousands of lives could be saved if the surgery was discontinued or performed less often.