Knee osteoarthritis is a leading cause of chronic pain, disability, and decreased quality of life. Despite the long-standing use of intra-articular corticosteroids, there is an ongoing debate about their benefits and safety. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2005.
To determine the benefits and harms of intra-articular corticosteroids compared with sham or no intervention in people with knee osteoarthritis in terms of pain, physical function, quality of life, and safety.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, and EMBASE (from inception to 3 February 2015), checked trial registers, conference proceedings, reference lists, and contacted authors.
We included randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials that compared intra-articular corticosteroids with sham injection or no treatment in people with knee osteoarthritis. We applied no language restrictions.
We calculated standardised mean differences (SMDs) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) for pain, function, quality of life, joint space narrowing, and risk ratios (RRs) for safety outcomes. We combined trials using an inverse-variance random-effects meta-analysis.
We identified 27 trials (13 new studies) with 1767 participants in this update. We graded the quality of the evidence as 'low' for all outcomes because treatment effect estimates were inconsistent with great variation across trials, pooled estimates were imprecise and did not rule out relevant or irrelevant clinical effects, and because most trials had a high or unclear risk of bias. Intra-articular corticosteroids appeared to be more beneficial in pain reduction than control interventions (SMD -0.40, 95% CI -0.58 to -0.22), which corresponds to a difference in pain scores of 1.0 cm on a 10-cm visual analogue scale between corticosteroids and sham injection and translates into a number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) of 8 (95% CI 6 to 13). An I(2) statistic of 68% indicated considerable between-trial heterogeneity. A visual inspection of the funnel plot suggested some asymmetry (asymmetry coefficient -1.21, 95%CI -3.58 to 1.17). When stratifying results according to length of follow-up, benefits were moderate at 1 to 2 weeks after end of treatment (SMD -0.48, 95% CI -0.70 to -0.27), small to moderate at 4 to 6 weeks (SMD -0.41, 95% CI -0.61 to -0.21), small at 13 weeks (SMD -0.22, 95% CI -0.44 to 0.00), and no evidence of an effect at 26 weeks (SMD -0.07, 95% CI -0.25 to 0.11). An I(2) statistic of ≥ 63% indicated a moderate to large degree of between-trial heterogeneity up to 13 weeks after end of treatment (P for heterogeneity≤0.001), and an I(2) of 0% indicated low heterogeneity at 26 weeks (P=0.43). There was evidence of lower treatment effects in trials that randomised on average at least 50 participants per group (P=0.05) or at least 100 participants per group (P=0.013), in trials that used concomittant viscosupplementation (P=0.08), and in trials that used concomitant joint lavage (P≤0.001).Corticosteroids appeared to be more effective in function improvement than control interventions (SMD -0.33, 95% CI -0.56 to -0.09), which corresponds to a difference in functions scores of -0.7 units on standardised Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index (WOMAC) disability scale ranging from 0 to 10 and translates into a NNTB of 10 (95% CI 7 to 33). An I(2) statistic of 69% indicated a moderate to large degree of between-trial heterogeneity. A visual inspection of the funnel plot suggested asymmetry (asymmetry coefficient -4.07, 95% CI -8.08 to -0.05). When stratifying results according to length of follow-up, benefits were small to moderate at 1 to 2 weeks after end of treatment (SMD -0.43, 95% CI -0.72 to -0.14), small to moderate at 4 to 6 weeks (SMD -0.36, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.09), and no evidence of an effect at 13 weeks (SMD -0.13, 95% CI -0.37 to 0.10) or at 26 weeks (SMD 0.06, 95% CI -0.16 to 0.28). An I(2) statistic of ≥ 62% indicated a moderate to large degree of between-trial heterogeneity up to 13 weeks after end of treatment (P for heterogeneity≤0.004), and an I(2) of 0% indicated low heterogeneity at 26 weeks (P=0.52). We found evidence of lower treatment effects in trials that randomised on average at least 50 participants per group (P=0.023), in unpublished trials (P=0.023), in trials that used non-intervention controls (P=0.031), and in trials that used concomitant viscosupplementation (P=0.06).Participants on corticosteroids were 11% less likely to experience adverse events, but confidence intervals included the null effect (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.64 to 1.23, I(2)=0%). Participants on corticosteroids were 67% less likely to withdraw because of adverse events, but confidence intervals were wide and included the null effect (RR 0.33, 95% CI 0.05 to 2.07, I(2)=0%). Participants on corticosteroids were 27% less likely to experience any serious adverse event, but confidence intervals were wide and included the null effect (RR 0.63, 95% CI 0.15 to 2.67, I(2)=0%).We found no evidence of an effect of corticosteroids on quality of life compared to control (SMD -0.01, 95% CI -0.30 to 0.28, I(2)=0%). There was also no evidence of an effect of corticosteroids on joint space narrowing compared to control interventions (SMD -0.02, 95% CI -0.49 to 0.46).
Whether there are clinically important benefits of intra-articular corticosteroids after one to six weeks remains unclear in view of the overall quality of the evidence, considerable heterogeneity between trials, and evidence of small-study effects. A single trial included in this review described adequate measures to minimise biases and did not find any benefit of intra-articular corticosteroids.In this update of the systematic review and meta-analysis, we found most of the identified trials that compared intra-articular corticosteroids with sham or non-intervention control small and hampered by low methodological quality. An analysis of multiple time points suggested that effects decrease over time, and our analysis provided no evidence that an effect remains six months after a corticosteroid injection.