A comprehensive prehabilitation exercise program for patients with severe knee arthritis can improve strength and functional ability before knee replacement surgery, according to a study in the February issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.

The physical gains from exercise before knee replacement may translate into improved recovery after surgery, suggests the new study by Ann M. Swank, PhD, CSCS, and colleagues of University of Louisville, Ky.

The study included 71 patients scheduled for knee replacement surgery because of severe osteoarthritis that could not be managed with pain medications. One group was randomly assigned to a comprehensive prehabilitation program, consisting of light resistance training, flexibility and step exercise, and light walking.

Patients in this pre-rehab group exercised three times a week, in the clinic and at home, for 4 to 8 weeks before knee replacement surgery. Patients in the comparison group received standard preoperative care, with instructions to continue their usual activities. The two groups were compared for knee strength and performance on standard functional tests.

When tested 1 week before surgery, patients who went through the prehabilitation program showed improvements in several key outcomes. In particular, they had a significant 10% increase in extension strength in the leg scheduled for knee replacement. In contrast, the comparison group had an 10% decrease in extension strength.

Prehabilitation was also associated with improvement in some functional tests, including the ability to get up from a chair and to climb a set of stairs. Other functional tests, such as walking speed and going downstairs, showed no significant improvement.

Patients in the prehabilitation group also had less pain when performing the functional tests. For patients receiving standard care, performance on some functional tests actually decreased in the weeks before surgery—possibly reflecting increased pain scores.

Previous studies have evaluated exercise programs to improve leg strength and functional ability before knee replacement surgery, but with limited success. For the new study,  Swank and colleagues developed a comprehensive, progressive short-term exercise program specifically designed to increase leg strength and functional ability, according to the report.

The results show significant improvements in strength and functioning in the weeks before knee replacement surgery. Strengthening of the leg undergoing knee replacement may be a particularly important factor—exercise may reduce the strength imbalance between legs, thus contributing to the functional improvement. (Although even with exercise, the surgical leg remains significantly weaker than the other leg.)

Swank and colleagues outline a recommended routine for progressive exercise in patients scheduled for knee replacement surgery. They note that the prehabilitation program was designed to be "easily accessible" and "easily transferred to a home environment." Although their study didn’t compare postoperative recovery, the researchers note, "Increases in leg strength and performance of functional tasks before [knee replacement] surgery may result in improved postoperative recovery because preoperative performance of functional tasks has been shown to be a predictor of postoperative performance of functional tasks."

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research is the official research journal of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Colorado Springs, Colo.  

[Source: Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins]