Category Archives: The Physical Examination

The hallmark of medicine has always been the physical examination. Perhaps more than the actual diagnosis, the process by which the physician arrives at his or her conclusion has defined the “art” of medicine. Much has been written about the techniques by which this art is performed, and much more will continue to be written. Each generation will take from the past and apply these techniques to the future of medicine.

The physical examination is an extension of the history and extends the doctor-patient relationship initially established during the history. The skill with which the examination is performed instills a sense of confidence in the patient that the examiner knows what he or she is doing. This confidence in the physician has a positive outcome on the patient’s ability to recover. Finally, the physical examination serves to narrow the list of diagnostic possibilities.

In a specialty like physiatry, in which the whole person is evaluated in terms of function, there is no adjunct more important than the physical examination. The examination provides the foundation to formulate a plan to improve a person’s function. Importantly, though, in looking at function, each piece must be applied to the whole person. The examination of one joint must be applied to the whole picture of the patient, and an understanding of functional biomechanics will enable the physician to include in the physical examination other structures that may indirectly contribute to the impairment.

The focus on function and application to the whole person in physiatry can be best seen in understanding the concept of the kinetic chain. No one joint, bone, or muscle acts alone in the body. An ankle sprain can lead to low-back pain. Lowback pain can affect the serve of a tennis professional. Lateral epicondylitis can alter shoulder mechanics and lead to rotator cuff impingement. It is because of these relationships that the physiatrist must perform a thorough examination. It is this comprehensive manner that sets apart the physiatric approach from others. A thorough knowledge of the neuromuscular system and an understanding of functional biomechanics will narrow the focus of the examination so it can be done in a time-efficient manner. The relationship between the different joints and regions must be understood. In addition, a complete understanding of the muscles and their innervation is required.

An understanding of the muscle kinesiology and biomechanics is very important in the physical examination. Each muscle functions across one or more joints to provide motion or stabilization. One example would be the hamstrings. When the foot is planted, the hamstrings act in their primary function as powerful hip extensors. However, with the foot off the ground, they can become knee flexors. With a patient prone and the knee bent at 90 degrees, the gluteus maximus acts as the primary extensor because of the shortened hamstrings. Place the knee in full extension, and the hamstrings will once again act as hip extensors. We will look further into these types of relationships in the physical examination.

In today’s medicine, there exists a tremendous amount of information to digest. The number of articles indexed in MEDLINE has grown in size from 1,098,000 citations in 1970 to 11,761,000 in 2000. The modern physician must have an understanding of the body down to a microcellular level. In addition, access to modern tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is achieved by a greater number of patients. Any test has its limitations, and in the example of the MRI, these can be multiple false-positive findings (1). The MRI should be used to confirm not make a diagnosis. Many physician referrals are generated from a radiologist’s interpretation of a study, often without physical examination findings consistent with the results of the study. It is at this point that the well-trained physiatrist can be the link using evidence-based medicine as it applies to diagnosis, history, and physical examination.

Whole texts are dedicated to the physical exam. Due to the limits of one chapter, this will be an introduction to the physical examination and kinesiology of the cervical spine, shoulder, lumbar spine, and knee. That said, the reader should be able to approach any joint in the manner laid out here to aid in his or her diagnosis. Examination of any joint should be performed in a systematic approach. As the examination begins, the clinician should make sure that the area to be examined is properly exposed for evaluation and the patient appropriately draped. We have focused on the major joints seen in our practice—the cervical and lumbar regions of the spine, the shoulder, and the knee. Other joints will be addressed in chapters in this text. We will now address the physical examination, and the kinesiology of the muscles and joints will be explained. For reference, the dermatomes, myotomes, and sclerotomes are illustrated in Chapter 21.

It is the task of the physiatrist to perform a thorough physical examination to confirm his or her diagnosis derived from the history and additional information. It even is more important today, because of the additional tests modern technology has advanced, to understand physical examination maneuvers and their diagnostic relevance.

Joseph H. Feinberg and Peter J. Moley

Source: Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – Principles and Practice

Examination of the Knee

Examination of the Knee

Inspection Inspection is only possible with adequate exposure. Begin by placing the patient in shorts or tying the gown up above the knee. The patient’s gait should be observed first. Pay attention to the positioning of the knee on both the medial/lateral plane (valgus vs. varus) and the anterior/posterior plane (extension lag vs. knee recurvatum). […]

Examination of the Lumbar Spine

Examination of the Lumbar Spine

Inspection The examination of the low back, like the other areas of the body, should begin as the patient enters the office and examination room. Watch how the patient moves while walking and how he or she moves changing positions. The patient’s posture should be noted. The patient should be in a gown that opens […]

Examination of the Shoulder

Inspection Inspection of the shoulder requires that the shoulder be exposed and the patient appropriately draped. The shoulder "joint" actually consists of four different joints: sternoclavicular, acromioclavicular, glenohumeral, and scapulothoracic. Three of the joints are true joints, while the scapulothoracic joint is not a true articulating joint lined with cartilage. It is important to visualize […]

Examination Of the Cervical Spine

Inspection Inspection of the neck begins upon meeting the patient. Look to see if the patient moves the shoulders when he or she turns the neck, a sign of decreased range of motion, or if he or she winces with certain motions. Take note of the patient's relaxed posture as changes to improve poor posture […]