Background: Quadriceps femoris muscle (QFM) weakness is a feature of knee osteoarthritis (OA) and exercise programs that strengthen this muscle group can improve function, disability and pain. Traditional supervised resistance exercise is however resource intensive and dependent on good adherence which can be challenging to achieve in patients with significant knee OA. Because of the limitations of traditional exercise programs, interest has been shown in the use of neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) to strengthen the QFM. We conducted a single-blind, prospective randomized controlled study to compare the effects of home-based resistance training (RT) and NMES on patients with moderate to severe knee OA.
Methods: 41 patients aged 55 to 75 years were randomised to 6 week programs of RT, NMES or a control group receiving standard care. The primary outcome was functional capacity measured using a walk test, stair climb test and chair rise test. Additional outcomes were self-reported disability, quadriceps strength and cross-sectional area. Outcomes were assessed pre- and post-intervention and at 6 weeks post-intervention (weeks 1, 8 and 14 respectively).
Results: There were similar, significant improvements in functional capacity for the RT and NMES groups at week 8 compared to week 1 (p ≤ 0.001) and compared to the control group (p < 0.005), and the improvements were maintained at week 14 (p ≤ 0.001). Cross sectional area of the QFM increased in both training groups (NMES: +5.4%; RT: +4.3%; p = 0.404). Adherence was 91% and 83% in the NMES and RT groups respectively (p = 0.324).
Conclusions: Home-based NMES is an acceptable alternative to exercise therapy in the management of knee OA, producing similar improvements in functional capacity.
Trial registration: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN85231954.