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J Man Manip Ther. 2012 Nov;20(4):214-8. doi: 10.1179/2042618612Y.0000000011.

Differential diagnosis of a patient referred to physical therapy with neck pain: a case study of a patient with an atypical presentation of angina.

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  • 1Duke University Health System, Durham, NC, USA.



A 64-year-old man with acute onset neck pain was referred to physical therapy by a neurosurgeon. The purpose of this case study is to examine the process of differential diagnosis in a patient with neck pain and to discuss common diagnostic errors that can occur in the outpatient setting.


The patient had an 8-week history of neck pain, which was worse when running and lifting objects. He presented with imaging of the cervical spine demonstrating degenerative changes. During the examination, several differential diagnoses were considered. A thorough physical examination of the cervical spine and upper quarter failed to reproduce his symptoms. At that time, the physical therapist was suspicious that the origin of the patient's neck pain was non-mechanical in nature. Additional testing during the examination included having the patient exercise briefly on gym equipment; this reproduced his symptoms. After additional positional and postural changes did not alleviate the symptoms, he stopped exercising, and his pain ceased.


The patient was referred back to his primary care physician who ordered cardiovascular testing including an electrocardiogram and echocardiogram. These tests revealed significant cardiac abnormalities including multi-vessel blockage of the coronary arteries and evidence of infarction. He underwent a coronary artery bypass graft 4 days later.


To make an appropriate differential diagnosis, physical therapists must use a patient-centered model of clinical reasoning and meta-cognition and have an awareness of diagnostic errors such that they can be avoided. The goal of the physical therapy examination, including differential diagnosis, is to efficiently classify the patient for treatment or to direct patients to the proper healthcare provider, thereby minimizing and preventing mortality and morbidity.


Angina pectoris; Cardiovascular; Cervical spine; Differential diagnosis; Neck pain

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