Three times a week, thousands of people with knee osteoarthritis lift weights, have their blood pressure checked, and walk around a track at gyms in central and western North Carolina.
Some of them also take nutrition classes and listen to lifestyle lectures. Others count their calories.
But everyone has their blood work done, has their leg strength tested, gets bone density scans, and fills out quality-of-life questionnaires.
These North Carolinians are part of clinical trials led by Stephen Messier, PhD. He is the director of the J.B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University.
Addressing a Rising Problem
For more than 30 years, Messier has been searching for ways to reduce knee pain from osteoarthritis without taking medicine.
An estimated 27 million people in the U.S. have osteoarthritis, and this number is on the rise. Osteoarthritis can be painful and have a negative impact on quality of life. It often affects joints, especially the knees.
“Randomized clinical trials are the gold standard of clinical research,” Messier says. “We’re looking for ways to reduce pain and improve function and quality of life.”
What We’ve Learned
“Forty years ago, doctors told patients to sit down and take it easy. Gradually, we figured out that moving helps,” Messier says.
“We thought a little movement was good, then maybe a little more is even better, and now we know that long-term exercise and weight loss produce excellent results. They aren’t a magic pill, but they come close.”
The clinical trials at Wake Forest last for 18 months or longer. About 88 percent of participants stick with a study for the entire time. Danny Hamm, an exercise and diet interventionist for one of the studies, the Strength Training for Arthritis Trial (START), believes it’s because participants gain so much from participating.
“I love hearing that the people I work with are getting up the stairs better, or they are better able to play with their grandchildren,” Hamm says. “I’m hoping the results of our work will help more people do the same.”
“We’re reducing pain by as much as half,” Messier says. “And that’s a lot more than you get by taking pain medicine.”
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases funds the research for START and other clinical trials at Wake Forest.