Bias in the physical examination of patients with lumbar radiculopathy
1 Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
2 Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Network, Boston, MA, USA
3 New England Baptist Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
4 VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, MA, USA
5 Northern Clinical School, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
6 Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy, Department of Medicine and Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2010, 11:275 doi:10.1186/1471-2474-11-275Published: 30 November 2010
No prior studies have examined systematic bias in the musculoskeletal physical examination. The objective of this study was to assess the effects of bias due to prior knowledge of lumbar spine magnetic resonance imaging findings (MRI) on perceived diagnostic accuracy of the physical examination for lumbar radiculopathy.
This was a cross-sectional comparison of the performance characteristics of the physical examination with blinding to MRI results (the 'independent group') with performance in the situation where the physical examination was not blinded to MRI results (the 'non-independent group'). The reference standard was the final diagnostic impression of nerve root impingement by the examining physician. Subjects were recruited from a hospital-based outpatient specialty spine clinic. All adults age 18 and older presenting with lower extremity radiating pain of duration ≤ 12 weeks were evaluated for participation. 154 consecutively recruited subjects with lumbar disk herniation confirmed by lumbar spine MRI were included in this study. Sensitivities and specificities with 95% confidence intervals were calculated in the independent and non-independent groups for the four components of the radiculopathy examination: 1) provocative testing, 2) motor strength testing, 3) pinprick sensory testing, and 4) deep tendon reflex testing.
The perceived sensitivity of sensory testing was higher with prior knowledge of MRI results (20% vs. 36%; p = 0.05). Sensitivities and specificities for exam components otherwise showed no statistically significant differences between groups.
Prior knowledge of lumbar MRI results may introduce bias into the pinprick sensory testing component of the physical examination for lumbar radiculopathy. No statistically significant effect of bias was seen for other components of the physical examination. The effect of bias due to prior knowledge of lumbar MRI results should be considered when an isolated sensory deficit on examination is used in medical decision-making. Further studies of bias should include surgical clinic populations and other common diagnoses including shoulder, knee and hip pathology.