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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Does parallel item content on WOMAC's Pain and Function Subscales limit its ability to detect change in functional status?

Paul W Stratford1* and Deborah M Kennedy12

Author Affiliations

1 School of Rehabilitation Science and Associate Member Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, 1400 Main Street West (4th Floor), Hamilton, ON, Canada, L8S 1C7

2 Centre for Studies of Physical Function, Orthopaedic and Arthritic Institute of Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre; 43 Wellesley Street East, Toronto, ON, Canada, M4Y 1H1

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2004, 5:17  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-5-17

Published: 9 June 2004



Although the Western Ontario and McMaster University Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC) is considered the leading outcome measure for patients with osteoarthritis of the lower extremity, recent work has challenged its factorial validity and the physical function subscale's ability to detect valid change when pain and function display different profiles of change. This study examined the etiology of the WOMAC's physical function subscale's limited ability to detect change in the presence of discordant changes for pain and function. We hypothesized that the duplication of some items on the WOMAC's pain and function subscales contributed to this shortcoming.


Two eight-item physical function scales were abstracted from the WOMAC's 17-item physical function subscale: one contained activities and themes that were duplicated on the pain subscale (SIMILAR-8); the other version avoided overlapping activities (DISSIMILAR-8). Factorial validity of the shortened measures was assessed on 310 patients awaiting hip or knee arthroplasty. The shortened measures' abilities to detect change were examined on a sample of 104 patients following primary hip or knee arthroplasty. The WOMAC and three performance measures that included activity specific pain assessments – 40 m walk test, stair test, and timed-up-and-go test – were administered preoperatively, within 16 days of hip or knee arthroplasty, and at an interval of greater than 20 days following the first post-surgical assessment. Standardized response means were used to quantify change.


The SIMILAR-8 did not demonstrate factorial validity; however, the factorial structure of the DISSIMILAR-8 was supported. The time to complete the performance measures more than doubled between the preoperative and first postoperative assessments supporting the theory that lower extremity functional status diminished over this interval. The DISSIMILAR-8 detected this deterioration in functional status; however, no significant change was noted for the SIMILAR-8. The WOMAC pain scale demonstrated a slight reduction in pain and the performance specific pain measures did not reflect a change in pain. All measures showed substantial improvement over the second assessment interval.


These findings support the hypothesis that activity overlap on the pain and function subscales plays a causal role in limiting the WOMAC physical function subscale's ability to detect change.