After six months, both groups had similar rates of functional improvement. Pain scores also were similar.
Thirty percent of patients assigned to physical therapy wound up having surgery before the six months was up, often because they felt therapy wasn’t helping them. Yet they ended up the same as those who got surgery right away, as well as the rest of the physical therapy group who stuck with it and avoided having an operation.
“There are patients who would like to get better in a ‘fix me’ approach” and surgery may be best for them, said Elena Losina, another study leader from Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
However, an Australian preventive medicine expert contends that the study’s results should change practice. Therapy “is a reasonable first strategy, with surgery reserved for the minority who don’t have improvement,” Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Melbourne wrote in a commentary in the medical journal.
As it is now, “millions of people are being exposed to potential risks associated with a treatment that may or may not offer specific benefit, and the costs are substantial,” she wrote.
Surgery costs about $5,000, compared with $1,000 to $2,000 for a typical course of physical therapy, Katz said.
One study participant — Bob O’Keefe, 68, of suburban Boston — was glad to avoid surgery for his meniscus injury three years ago.
“I felt better within two weeks” on physical therapy, he said. “My knee is virtually normal today” and he still does the recommended exercises several times a week.
Robert Dvorkin had both treatments for injuries on each knee several years apart. Dvorkin, 56, director of operations at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, had surgery followed by physical therapy for a tear in his right knee and said it was months before he felt no pain.