Exercise therapy and patient education versus intra-articular saline injections in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis: an evidence-based protocol for an open-label randomised controlled trial (the DISCO trial)

Trials. 2021 Jan 6;22(1):18. doi: 10.1186/s13063-020-04952-5.


Background: Knee osteoarthritis (OA) is a highly prevalent musculoskeletal condition causing pain, physical disability, and reduced quality of life. Exercise and patient education are non-pharmacological interventions for knee OA unanimously recommended as first-line treatments based on extensive research evidence. However, none of the numerous randomised controlled trials of exercise and education for knee OA has used adequate sham/placebo comparison groups because the 'active' ingredients are unknown. Designing and executing an adequate and 'blindable placebo' version of an exercise and education intervention is impossible. Therefore, using an open-label study design, this trial compares the efficacy of a widely used 'state-of-art' exercise and education intervention (Good Life with osteoarthritis in Denmark; GLAD) with presumably inert intra-articular saline injections on improvement in knee pain in patients with knee OA.

Methods: In this open-label randomised trial, we will include 200 patients with radiographically verified OA of the knee and randomly allocate them to one of two interventions: (i) 8 weeks of exercise and education (GLAD) or (ii) Intra-articular injections of 5 ml isotonic saline every second week for a total of 4 injections. Outcomes are taken at baseline, after 8 weeks of treatment (week 9; primary endpoint) and after an additional 4 weeks of follow-up (week 12). The primary outcome is change from baseline in the Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score questionnaire (KOOS) pain subscale score. Secondary outcomes include the Physical function in Activities of Daily Living, Symptoms, and Knee-related Quality of Life subscales of the KOOS, the patients' global assessment of disease impact, physical performance tests, and presence of knee joint swelling.

Discussion: This current trial compares a presumably active treatment (GLAD) with a presumably inert treatment (IA saline injections). Both study interventions have well-established and anticipated similar effects on knee OA symptoms, but the underlying mechanisms are unknown. The interpretation of the results of this trial will likely be difficult and controversial but will contribute to a better understanding of the bias introduced in the effect estimation of classically unblindable exercise and education interventions for knee OA.

Trial registration: www.ClinicalTrials.gov NCT03843931 . Prospectively registered on 18 February 2019.

Keywords: Education; Exercise; Intra-articular saline injection; Knee osteoarthritis; Open-label; Placebo; Randomised controlled trial.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial Protocol

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Humans
  • Injections, Intra-Articular
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee* / drug therapy
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee* / therapy
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Quality of Life
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03843931