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Phys Ther. 2005 Feb;85(2):120-33.

Relationship of physical examination findings and self-reported symptom severity and physical function in patients with degenerative lumbar conditions.

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Department of Physical Therapy, Simmons College, Boston, Mass, USA.



Limited data are available to assist clinicians in clinical decision making. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationships of symptom provocation during physical examination (PE) procedures and self-report of symptom severity and function in patients with degenerative lumbar conditions.


Twenty-four men and 50 women with chronic low back pain (CLBP) (>6 months duration) were recruited from a university hospital (median age=64.2 years, mean=66.8, SD=12.4, range=55.7-97.8).


Demographic information, medical history, PE findings, and data from 2 self-report measures of symptom severity and function (Lumbar Spinal Stenosis [LSS] questionnaire and Medical Outcomes Study 36-Item Short-Form Health Survey [SF-36]) were collected.


Patients had moderate symptoms of degenerative lumbar conditions (mean LSS symptom score=2.67, SD=0.71) and reported some difficulties with low back function (mean LSS function score=1.99, SD=0.61). The most frequent physical examination findings were a positive quadrant test (70%), followed by lower-extremity muscle weakness (64%), abnormal reflexes (62%), and active lumbar extension (61%). Patients who were symptomatic during the quadrant test, patients who had pain with lateral flexion, and patients who had lower-extremity weakness had higher self-reported LSS symptom severity (t=-3.06, P=.003; t=-2.96, P=.004; and t=-3.2, P=.002, respectively). Pain with lumbar extension was moderately correlated with LSS symptom severity (Spearman rho=.31, P=.007). No lumbar PE procedure was associated with decreased condition-specific function. The quadrant test was the strongest predictor of symptom severity (beta=.54, r(2)=.21, P=.0009).


The association between PE findings and self-reported symptom severity in this sample is consistent with the pathoanatomy of degenerative spinal conditions and indicates that movement that narrows the foraminal space contributes to symptom severity. The quadrant test distinguished those subjects with clinically meaningful low back symptom severity but was not predictive of impaired function. This study illustrates the potential benefit of identifying clinical PE measures that are reflective of condition severity and back-specific function in patients with similar clinical syndromes.

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