BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2019 20:107

Gait mechanics contribute to exercise induced pain flares in knee osteoarthritis

Katherine A. Boyer & Jocelyn F. Hafer


Exercise-induced pain flares represent a significant barrier for individuals with knee osteoarthritis to meet physical activity recommendations. There is a need to understand factors that contribute to pain flares and the potential for the motor system to adapt and reduce joint loading should a flare occur. The study aim was to examine the impact of a bout of exercise on self-reported pain, walking mechanics and muscle co-contraction for participants with knee osteoarthritis.


Thirty-six adults (17 healthy older and 19 knee osteoarthritis) participated in this study. Self-reported pain, joint mechanics and muscle co-activation during gait at two self-selected speeds were collected before and after a 20-min preferred pace treadmill walk (20MTW).


Eight of nineteen osteoarthritis participants had a clinically significant pain flare response to the 20MTW. At baseline the participants that did not experience a pain flare had smaller knee flexion and total reaction moments compared to both the participants with pain flares (p = 0.02; p = 0.05) and controls (p < 0.001; p < 0.001). In addition, the 2nd peak knee adduction (p = 0.01) and internal rotation (p = 0.001) moments were smaller in the no flares as compared to controls. The pain flare participants differed from controls with smaller knee internal rotation moments (p = 0.03), but greater relative hamstrings (vs. quadriceps) and medial (vs. lateral) muscle activation (p = 0.04, p = 0.04) compared to both controls and no flare participants (p = 0.04, p = 0.007). Following the 20MTW there were greater decreases in the 1st and 2nd peak knee adduction (p = 0.03; p = 0.02), and internal rotation (p = 0.002) moments for the pain flare as compared to the no flare group. In addition, for the pain flare as compared to controls, greater decreases in the knee flexion (p = 0.03) and internal rotation (p = 0.005) moments were found.


Individuals who adapt their gait to reduce knee joint loads may be less susceptible to exercise-induced pain flares. This highlights a potential role of gait biomechanics in short-term osteoarthritis pain fluctuations. The results also suggest that despite the chronic nature of osteoarthritis pain, the motor system’s ability to respond to nociceptive stimuli remains intact.

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