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Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Dec 14;(12):CD003523. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003523.pub2.

Electromagnetic fields for treating osteoarthritis.

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Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, No.37 Guo-xue-xiang Street, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, 610041.



This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2002. Osteoarthritis is a disease that affects the synovial joints, causing degeneration and destruction of hyaline cartilage and subchondral bone. Electromagnetic field therapy is currently used by physiotherapists and may promote growth and repair of bone and cartilage. It is based on principles of physics which include Wolff's law, the piezoelectric effect and the concept of streaming potentials.


To assess the benefits and harms of electromagnetic fields for the treatment of osteoarthritis as compared to placebo or sham.


We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2013, Issue 9), PreMEDLINE for trials published before 1966, MEDLINE from 1966 to October 2013, CINAHL and PEDro up to and including October 2013. Electronic searches were complemented by handsearches.


Randomised controlled trials of electromagnetic fields in osteoarthritis, with four or more weeks treatment duration. We included papers in any language.


Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion in the review and resolved differences by consensus with a third review author. We extracted data using pre-developed data extraction forms. The same review authors assessed the risk of bias of the trials independently using the Cochrane 'Risk of bias' tool. We extracted outcomes for osteoarthritis from the publications according to Outcome Measures in Rheumatology Clinical Trials (OMERACT) guidelines. We expressed results for continuous outcome measures as mean difference (MD) or standardised mean difference (SMD) with 95% confidence interval (CI). We pooled dichotomous outcome measures using risk ratio (RR) and calculated the number needed to treat (NNT).


Nine studies with a total of 636 participants with osteoarthritis were included, six of which were added in this update of the review. Selective outcome reporting was unclear in all nine included studies due to inadequate reporting of study design and conduct, and there was high risk of bias for incomplete outcome data in three studies. The overall risk of bias across the nine studies was low for the other domains.Participants who were randomised to electromagnetic field treatment rated their pain relief 15.10 points more on a scale of 0 to 100 (MD 15.10, 95% CI 9.08 to 21.13; absolute improvement 15%) after 4 to 26 weeks' treatment compared with placebo. Electromagnetic field treatment had no statistically significant effect on physical function (MD 4.55, 95% CI -2.23 to 11.32; absolute improvement 4.55%) based on the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities osteoarthritis index (WOMAC) scale from 0 to 100 after 12 to 26 weeks' treatment. We also found no statistically significant difference in quality of life on a scale from 0 to 100 (SMD 0.09, 95% CI -0.36 to 0.54; absolute improvement 0.09%) after four to six weeks' treatment, based on the SF-36. No data were available for analysis of radiographic changes. Safety was evaluated in four trials including up to 288 participants: there was no difference in the experience of any adverse event after 4 to 12 weeks of treatment compared with placebo (RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.92). There was no difference in participants who withdrew because of adverse events (measured in one trial) after four weeks of treatment (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.06 to 13.92). No participants experienced any serious adverse events.


Current evidence suggests that electromagnetic field treatment may provide moderate benefit for osteoarthritis sufferers in terms of pain relief. Further studies are required to confirm whether this treatment confers clinically important benefits in terms of physical function and quality of life. Our conclusions are unchanged from the previous review conducted in 2002.

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