This study aimed to examine the effect of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) on stair climbing capacity in individuals with pre-radiographic to mild knee osteoarthritis (OA). This is a secondary analysis of data from a single, participant-blinded, randomized controlled trial with a pre-post design. Participants with pre-radiographic to mild knee OA (mean age, 59.1 years; 72.9% women) were randomly assigned into two groups, a TENS (n = 30) and a sham-TENS groups (n = 29). TENS or sham-TENS treatments were applied to all participants by using the prototype TENS device with pre-specified parameters. The primary outcome measures included valid and reliable functional measures for stair climbing (stair-climb test [SCT]), visual analog scale for knee pain during the SCT, and quadriceps muscle strength. TENS improved SCT time by 0.41 s (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.07, 0.75). The time reduction in the transition phase explains the TENS therapeutic effect. Post-hoc correlation analyses revealed a non-significant but positive relationship between the pain relief effect and improved 11-step SCT time in the TENS group but not in the sham-TENS group. These results indicate that the TENS intervention may be an option for reducing the burden of early-stage knee OA.
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