Electrical stimulation for pain relief in knee osteoarthritis: systematic review and network meta-analysis

Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2015 Feb;23(2):189-202. doi: 10.1016/j.joca.2014.11.014. Epub 2014 Nov 26.


Objective: To investigate the efficacy of different electrical stimulation (ES) therapies in pain relief of patients with knee osteoarthritis (OA).

Method: Electronic databases including MEDLINE, Embase and Cochrane Library were searched through for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing any ES therapies with control interventions (sham or blank) or with each other. Bayesian network meta-analysis was used to combine both the direct and indirect evidence on treatment effectiveness.

Results: 27 trials and six kinds of ES therapies, including high-frequency transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (h-TENS), low-frequency transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (l-TENS), neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), interferential current (IFC), pulsed electrical stimulation (PES), and noninvasive interactive neurostimulation (NIN), were included. IFC is the only significantly effective treatment in terms of both pain intensity and change pain score at last follow-up time point when compared with the control group. Meanwhile, IFC showed the greatest probability of being the best option among the six treatment methods in pain relief. These estimates barely changed in sensitivity analysis. However, the evidence of heterogeneity and the limitation in sample size of some studies could be a potential threat to the validity of results.

Conclusion: IFC seems to be the most promising pain relief treatment for the management of knee OA. However, evidence was limited due to the heterogeneity and small number of included trials. Although the recommendation level of the other ES therapies is either uncertain (h-TENS) or not appropriate (l-TENS, NMES, PES and NIN) for pain relief, it is likely that none of the interventions is dangerous.

Level of evidence: LevelⅡ, systematic review and network meta-analysis of RCTs.

Keywords: Electrical stimulation; Meta-analysis; Osteoarthritis; Pain.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Arthralgia / etiology*
  • Arthralgia / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / complications*
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation*
  • Treatment Outcome