Open Access Research article

Hand assessment in older adults with musculoskeletal hand problems: a reliability study

Helen L Myers1*, Elaine Thomas1, Elaine M Hay12 and Krysia S Dziedzic1

Author Affiliations

1 Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK

2 Staffordshire Rheumatology Centre, The Haywood, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, UK

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2011, 12:3  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-12-3

Published: 7 January 2011



Musculoskeletal hand pain is common in the general population. This study aims to investigate the inter- and intra-observer reliability of two trained observers conducting a simple clinical interview and physical examination for hand problems in older adults. The reliability of applying the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria for hand osteoarthritis to community-dwelling older adults will also be investigated.


Fifty-five participants aged 50 years and over with a current self-reported hand problem and registered with one general practice were recruited from a previous health questionnaire study. Participants underwent a standardised, structured clinical interview and physical examination by two independent trained observers and again by one of these observers a month later. Agreement beyond chance was summarised using Kappa statistics and intra-class correlation coefficients.


Median values for inter- and intra-observer reliability for clinical interview questions were found to be "substantial" and "moderate" respectively [median agreement beyond chance (Kappa) was 0.75 (range: -0.03, 0.93) for inter-observer ratings and 0.57 (range: -0.02, 1.00) for intra-observer ratings]. Inter- and intra-observer reliability for physical examination items was variable, with good reliability observed for some items, such as grip and pinch strength, and poor reliability observed for others, notably assessment of altered sensation, pain on resisted movement and judgements based on observation and palpation of individual features at single joints, such as bony enlargement, nodes and swelling. Moderate agreement was observed both between and within observers when applying the ACR criteria for hand osteoarthritis.


Standardised, structured clinical interview is reliable for taking a history in community-dwelling older adults with self reported hand problems. Agreement between and within observers for physical examination items is variable. Low Kappa values may have resulted, in part, from a low prevalence of clinical signs and symptoms in the study participants. The decision to use clinical interview and hand assessment variables in clinical practice or further research in primary care should include consideration of clinical applicability and training alongside reliability. Further investigation is required to determine the relationship between these clinical questions and assessments and the clinical course of hand pain and hand problems in community-dwelling older adults.