Background: There is evidence that knee pain not only is a consequence of structural deterioration in osteoarthritis (OA) but also contributes to structural progression. Clarifying this is important because targeting the factors related to knee pain may offer a clinical approach for slowing the progression of knee OA. The aim of this study was to examine whether knee pain over 1 year predicted cartilage volume loss, incidence and progression of radiographic osteoarthritis (ROA) over 4 years.
Methods: Osteoarthritis Initiative participants with no ROA (Kellgren-Lawrence grade ≤ 1) (n = 2120) and with ROA (Kellgren-Lawrence grade > 2) (n = 2249) were examined. Knee pain was assessed at baseline and 1 year using the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Knee pain patterns were categorised as no pain (WOMAC pain < 5 at baseline and 1 year), fluctuating pain (WOMAC pain > 5 at either time point) and persistent pain (WOMAC pain > 5 at both time points). Cartilage volume, incidence and progression of ROA were assessed using magnetic resonance imaging and x-rays at baseline and 4-years.
Results: In both non-ROA and ROA, greater baseline WOMAC knee pain score was associated with increased medial and lateral cartilage volume loss (p ≤ 0.001), incidence (OR 1.07, 95% CI 1.01-1.13) and progression (OR 1.07, 95% CI 1.03-1.10) of ROA. Non-ROA and ROA participants with fluctuating and persistent knee pain had increased cartilage volume loss compared with those with no pain (p for trend ≤ 0.01). Non-ROA participants with fluctuating knee pain had increased risk of incident ROA (OR 1.62, 95% CI 1.04-2.54), corresponding to a number needed to harm of 19.5. In ROA the risk of progressive ROA increased in participants with persistent knee pain (OR 1.82, 95% CI 1.28-2.60), corresponding to a number needed to harm of 9.6.
Conclusions: Knee pain over 1 year predicted accelerated cartilage volume loss and increased risk of incident and progressive ROA. Early management of knee pain and controlling knee pain over time by targeting the underlying mechanisms may be important for preserving knee structure and reducing the burden of knee OA.
Keywords: Cartilage; Incidence; Knee osteoarthritis; Magnetic resonance imaging; Pain; Progression.