Persistent Pain after TKA: Can it Be Trained Away?

The anticipation of postoperative pain associated with a large operation such as a total knee arthroplasty (TKA) scares many patients. Some worry to the point of “catastrophizing” pain prior to surgery. As orthopaedic surgeons, we try to assuage our patients’ fears through preoperative education and multimodal pain-management modalities after surgery, but there are still some patients in whom the fear of pain—and the pain itself that inevitably accompanies arthroplasty— negatively affect their outcome. Preparing such patients for surgery and helping them recover afterward despite this high anxiety are big challenges for the orthopaedic care team. Some data suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might help.

However, a multisite randomized trial by Riddle et al. published in the February 6, 2019 issue of JBJS did not find any differences in pain or function among patients with moderate to high preoperative pain catastrophizing scores who underwent a form of CBT focused on pain coping skills, when their outcomes were compared to those of similar patients in “usual care” or “arthritis education” arms of the study. Each group had similar WOMAC pain scores and pain catastrophizing scores to start, and all patients were found to have significant but very similar decreases in their pain scores at 2, 6, and 12 months postoperatively. Independent assessors determined that the quality of the intervention in the coping-skills and arthritis-education arms was high, suggesting that it was not poor-quality interventions that accounted for the consistent similarities among the 3 groups.

While there are many physiological and psychological factors contributing to an individual’s experience of pain, the results of this study ran surprisingly counter to prior evidence. The authors speculate that differences between the 3 groups may have been masked by the fact that all patients had such a large decrease in pain after the TKA. While that would appear to be  good news, we know that there is a stubbornly large subset of patients (cited in this article as 20%) who undergo a technically and radiographically ”successful” knee arthroplasty only to have continued pain without an obvious cause. (See related OrthoBuzz Editor’s Choice post.)

These findings lead me to believe a statement that probably cannot be proven: there are some patients who will experience function-limiting pain no matter what surgery is performed, no matter which drugs are administered, and no matter what rehabilitative therapy is provided. Learning how to identify those patients and clearly communicating expectations to them pre- and postoperatively might help improve their satisfaction with their procedure.

Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

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