Knee pain – not just a simple case of osteoarthritis

Knee osteoarthritis is, like so many chronic pain problems, a bit of a weird one. While most of us learned that osteoarthritis is a fairly benign disease, one that we can’t do a whole lot about but one that plagues many of us, the disability associated with a painful knee is pretty high – and we still don’t have much of a clue about how the pain we experience is actually generated.  Cartilage doesn’t have nociceptive fibres, yet deterioration of cartilage is the hallmark of osteoarthritis, though there are other structures capable of producing nociceptive input around the knee joint. Perhaps, as some authors argue, knee osteoarthritis is a “whole organ disease with a complex and multifactorial pathophysiology involving structural, psychosocial and neurophysiological factors” (Arendt-Nielsen, Skou, Nielsen et al, 2015).

Central sensitisation, or the process in which spinal cord and the brain become “wound up” or more responsive to input than normal, and seems to be a factor in the pain some people experience when they have osteoarthritic knees (Fingleton, Smart, Moloney et al, 2015; Finan, Buenaver, Bounds, Hussain, Park, Haque et al, 2013), particularly in women (Bartley, King, Sibille, et al, 2016). The problem is, few people are routinely screened for central sensitisation before they receive surgical treatment (a good question is whether pain-related research is a factor in orthopaedic assessment). Why should we think about screening? Well, outcomes for joint replacements in knee OA are not as good as they are for hip OA, and a good proportion of people have more than one surgery to attempt to revise the joint but ultimately don’t obtain a satisfactory resolution of their pain.

The authors of this very useful clinically-relevant paper “Clinical descriptors for the recognition of central sensitization pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis” (Lluch, Nijs, Courtney, Rebbeck, Wylde, Baert, Wideman, Howells and Skou, 2017) openly acknowledge that although the idea of central sensitisation in humans is appealing, and seems to answer a number of important questions, the actual term “central sensitisation” can, at this time, only be measured in animal models. The use of the term in humans is not yet agreed upon, and a term I find appealing is “nociplastic”, or in other words, plasticity of the nervous system underpinning an increase in responsiveness to “actual or potential tissue damage” (to quote from the IASP definition of pain). They argue that central sensitisation may not exist in a dichotomous “yes you have it” or “no you don’t”, but instead may from a continuum from a lot to a little, and they note that pain sensitivity also exists on a continuum (a bell-shaped curve).

So what’s a good clinician to do? We can’t all go out and get involved in conditioned pain modulation or in using brain imaging, yet it seems important to establish who might respond well to joint replacement vs who might need additional input so they get a good outcome. And something that’s not going to add too much expense or complexity to an assessment process that, at least in New Zealand, is rationed because of cost. (oops, sorry not “rationed” just “waitlist management”).

The first step as described by Lluch and colleagues involves the “subjective” assessment – I loathe the word “subjective” because this is the person’s own experience, and doesn’t need to be tainted with any suggestion that it’s inaccurate or can’t be trusted. ‘Nuff said. During an interview portion of an assessment, the authors suggest using some simple measures: reports of pain above 5/10 on a numeric rating scale where 0 – no pain, 10 – extreme pain. They add increased weight to this report if there is little significant found on simple imaging of the knee, because central sensitisation is thought to be less relevant where there is severe structural changes in the knee joint.

A pain drawing can be helpful – radiating pain, pain on the contralateral leg, and pain in other body sites can be an indication of central sensitisation, while pain that is localised just to the joint itself may be an indication that a surgical approach will be more likely to help. Using the Widespread Pain Index score >7 and painDETECT score >19 (seeVisser, et al, 2016) may be a relatively simple process for clinicians to use to identify those with troublesome pain.

The behaviour of pain with/without movement may be a useful indicator: those that find movement painful, or who report increased pain after engaging in physical activity might be responding to central sensitisation, given that OA pain is usually associated with rest. Add to this a discussion about what relieves the pain and what doesn’t (where easing up on mechanical demands should reduce pain while with central sensitisation, this may not occur), and those with pain that continues after movement may need more help with central sensitisation than those who don’t.

The authors also suggest two questionnaires that may help to spot the person experiencing central sensitisation – the painDETECT or the Central Sensitisation Inventory. At this point I’m not entirely certain that the CSI measures only central sensitisation (it may simply measure somatic attention, or distress), so I’d interpret the findings carefully and make sure the clinical picture confirms or doesn’t… while the painDETECT has been used to identify those with neuropathic pain, and may be appropriate though it hasn’t been strongly confirmed for use with knee OA (it was developed for low back pain). While you’re at it, you should also assess for psychosocial factors such as the tendency to think the worse, low mood, feeling helpless, and perhaps factors such as not liking your job, having limited family support, and maybe self-medicating with alcohol and tobacco or other substances.

Finally, for today’s post (yes I’ll carry on to the clinical tests next week!), response to pharmacology may also be a useful approach to identifying those with central sensitisation. Poor response to NSAIDs (the mainstay for knee OA in NZ), weak opioids (like codeine), and perhaps not responding to things like heat or joint mobilisation, may also be useful predictors.

In summary, there are numerous indicators one can use to help establish who might not respond well to a peripheral-only treatment. While some of these measures are used routinely by enlightened clinicians, there are plenty of people who think of these responses as an indication of “poor coping” or someone who REALLY needs surgery. Unless surgeons and those who work with people with knee OA begin to examine the literature on pain in knee OA, I think we’ll continue to have patients who receive surgery when perhaps it’s not the best thing for them. More on this next week.




Arendt-Nielsen L, Skou ST, Nielsen TA, et al. (2015). Altered central sensitization and pain modulation in the CNS in chronic joint pain. Current Osteoporosis Reports, 13:225–234.

Bartley EJ, King CD, Sibille KT, et al. (2016) Enhanced pain sensitivity among individuals with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis: potential sex differences in central sensitization. Arthritis Care Research (Hoboken). ;68:472–480.

Finan PH, Buenaver LF, Bounds SC, Hussain S, Park RJ, Haque UJ, et al. (2013). Discordance between pain and radiographic severity in knee osteoarthritis: findings from quantitative sensory testing of central sensitization.  Arthritis & Rheumatism, 65, 363-72. doi:10.1002/art.34646

Fingleton C, Smart K, Moloney N, et al. (2015). Pain sensitization in people with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 23:1043–1056.

Kim SH, Yoon KB, Yoon DM, Yoo JH & Ahn KR. (2015). Influence of Centrally Mediated Symptoms on Postoperative Pain in Osteoarthritis Patients Undergoing Total Knee Arthroplasty: A Prospective Observational Evaluation.  Pain Practice, 15, E46-53. doi:10.1111/papr.12311

Lluch, E., Nijs, J., Courtney, C. A., Rebbeck, T., Wylde, V., Baert, I., . . . Skou, S. T. (2017). Clinical descriptors for the recognition of central sensitization pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1-10. doi:10.1080/09638288.2017.1358770

Visser EJ, Ramachenderan J, Davies SJ, et al. (2016). Chronic widespread pain drawn on a body diagram is a screening tool for increased pain sensitization, psycho-social load, and utilization of pain management strategies. Pain Practice, 16, 31-37


One comment

  1. Bronnie– Thanks for an informative post! It does rather sound like this confirms the notion that , broadly speaking, patients with higher levels of pain/disability pre-operatively are less likely to improve with arthroplasty. Pretty much the same with any single intervention, I should think…

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