Background: Although osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee joints is the most common and debilitating joint disease in developed countries, the factors that determine the severity of symptoms are not yet understood well. Subjects with symptomatic medial knee OA were followed up prospectively to explore the relationship between radiographic changes and symptoms or physical examination findings.
Methods: One-hundred six OA knees in 68 subjects (mean age 71.1 years; 85% women) were followed up at 6-month intervals over 36 months. At each visit, knee radiographs were obtained, symptoms were assessed by a validated questionnaire, and the result of physical examination was recorded systematically using a specific chart. Correlations between the change of radiographs and clinical data were investigated in a longitudinal manner.
Results: During the study period, the narrowing of joint space width (JSW) was observed in 34 joints (32%). Although those knees were clinically or radiographically indistinguishable at baseline from those without JSW narrowing, differences became apparent at later visits during the follow-up. The subjects with knees that underwent JSW narrowing had severer symptoms, and the symptoms tended to be worse for those with higher rates of narrowing. A significant correlation was not found between the severity of symptoms and the growth of osteophytes. For the knees that did not undergo radiographic progression, the range of motion improved during the follow-up period, possibly due to the reduction of knee pain. Such improvement was not observed with the knees that underwent JSW narrowing or osteophyte growth.
Conclusion: The result of this study indicates that the symptoms of knee OA patients tend to be worse when JSW narrowing is underway. This finding may explain, at least partly, a known dissociation between the radiographic stage of OA and the severity of symptoms.