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Nonoperative Treatment as an Option for Isolated Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.

BACKGROUND: An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear is a risk factor for early osteoarthritis (OA) onset. Generally, ACL reconstruction (ACLR) is associated with better outcomes. However, there is a lack of evidence regarding the effect of operative versus nonoperative treatment for preventing premature knee OA in isolated ACL tears while achieving good functional outcomes.

PURPOSE/HYPOTHESIS: The purpose of the study was to compare the outcomes of ACLR to primarily nonoperative management of isolated ACL tears. It was hypothesized that the outcomes between treatment types would be similar.

STUDY DESIGN: Systematic review; Level of evidence, 3.

METHODS: This systematic review was registered on the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO) (registration No. CRD42021285901) and was conducted according to the Cochrane Handbook guidelines. We systematically searched for randomized and nonrandomized studies that compared ACLR with nonoperative treatments in isolated ACL tears in 3 databases until October 25, 2021. The risk of bias and quality of evidence of the included studies was assessed in accordance with the Cochrane guidelines. The primary outcome was radiologic signs of OA, and the secondary outcomes were functional parameters. Using the common effects model, we calculated pooled mean differences (MDs) and odds ratios (ORs) with 95% CIs.

RESULTS: Five studies-2 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and 3 retrospective non-RCTs-were included. There was a moderate risk of bias in 2 studies and a serious risk of bias in 1 study. The quality of evidence was rated low because of the higher risk of bias and inconsistency. Nonoperatively treated knees showed a trend toward lower odds of developing radiological signs of OA (OR, 1.84 [95% CI, 0.90 to 3.75]); however, surgically reconstructed knees had significantly better stability (MD, -2.44 [95% CI, -3.21 to -1.66 ]) and a trend toward better but clinically not meaningful Lysholm scores (MD, 2.88 [95% CI, -1.09 to 6.85]). The qualitative synthesis showed that surgical reconstruction was protective against subsequent injuries but not superior when returning to previous activity levels or various functional tests.

CONCLUSION: Findings indicated that there is no certain evidence that ACLR for an isolated ACL tear is superior to nonoperative treatment. Clinicians should consider nonoperative treatments with a well-designed rehabilitative program as a primary option. However, these findings must be interpreted with caution because of low study quality and high risk of bias.

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