Nervous system sensitization as a predictor of outcome in the treatment of peripheral musculoskeletal conditions: a systematic review

Helen O'Leary*, Keith M. Smart, Niamh A. Moloney, Catherine M. Doody

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    53 Citations (Scopus)


    Background: Research suggests that peripheral and central nervous system sensitization can contribute to the overall pain experience in peripheral musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions. It is unclear, however, whether sensitization of the nervous system results in poorer outcomes following the treatment. This systematic review investigated whether nervous system sensitization in peripheral MSK conditions predicts poorer clinical outcomes in response to a surgical or conservative intervention. Methods: Four electronic databases were searched to identify the relevant studies. Eligible studies had a prospective design, with a follow-up assessing the outcome in terms of pain or disability. Studies that used baseline indices of nervous system sensitization were included, such as quantitative sensory testing (QST) or questionnaires that measured centrally mediated symptoms. Results: Thirteen studies met the inclusion criteria, of which six were at a high risk of bias. The peripheral MSK conditions investigated were knee and hip osteoarthritis, shoulder pain, and elbow tendinopathy. QST parameters indicative of sensitization (lower electrical pain thresholds, cold hyperalgesia, enhanced temporal summation, lower punctate sharpness thresholds) were associated with negative outcome (more pain or disability) in 5 small exploratory studies. Larger studies that accounted for multiple confounders in design and analysis did not support a predictive relationship between QST parameters and outcome. Two studies used self-report measures to capture comorbid centrally mediated symptoms, and found higher questionnaire scores were independently predictive of more persistent pain following a total joint arthroplasty. Conclusion: This systematic review found insufficient evidence to support an independent predictive relationship between QST measures of nervous system sensitization and treatment outcome. Self-report measures demonstrated better predictive ability. Further high-quality prognostic research is warranted.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)249-266
    Number of pages18
    JournalPain Practice
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


    • hyperalgesia
    • joint pain
    • musculoskeletal diseases
    • nervous system
    • pain threshold
    • treatment outcome


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