BACKGROUND: Corticosteroid injection and physiotherapy are two commonly prescribed interventions for management of lateral epicondylalgia. Corticosteroid injections are the most clinically efficacious in the short term but are associated with high recurrence rates and delayed recovery, while physiotherapy is similar to injections at 6 weeks but with significantly lower recurrence rates. Whilst practitioners frequently recommend combining physiotherapy and injection to overcome harmful effects and improve outcomes, study of the benefits of this combination of treatments is lacking. Clinicians are also faced with the paradox that the powerful anti-inflammatory corticosteroid injections work well, albeit in the short term, for a non-inflammatory condition like lateral epicondylalgia. Surprisingly, these injections have not been rigorously tested against placebo injections. This study primarily addresses both of these issues. METHODS: A randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial with a 2 x 2 factorial design will evaluate the clinical efficacy, cost-effectiveness and recurrence rates of adding physiotherapy to an injection. In addition, the clinical efficacy and adverse effects of corticosteroid injection beyond that of a placebo saline injection will be studied. 132 participants with a diagnosis of lateral epicondylalgia will be randomly assigned by concealed allocation to one of four treatment groups - corticosteroid injection, saline injection, corticosteroid injection with physiotherapy or saline injection with physiotherapy. Physiotherapy will comprise 8 sessions of elbow manipulation and exercise over an 8 week period. Blinded follow-up assessments will be conducted at baseline, 4, 8, 12, 26 and 52 weeks after randomisation. The primary outcome will be a participant rating of global improvement, from which measures of success and recurrence will be derived. Analyses will be conducted on an intention-to-treat basis using linear mixed and logistic regression models. Healthcare costs will be collected from a societal perspective, and along with willingness-to-pay and quality of life data will facilitate cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses. CONCLUSION: This trial will utilise high quality trial methodologies in accordance with CONSORT guidelines. Findings from this study will assist in the development of evidence based practice recommendations and potentially the optimisation of resource allocation for rehabilitating lateral epicondylalgia. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Register ACTRN12609000051246.
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