#PTonICE Daily Show – Tuesday, February 13th, 2024 – Using palpation for differential diagnosis

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Extremity lead faculty Cody Gingerich discusses the importance of thorough palpation to rule in or out differential diagnosis during an objective exam.

Take a listen to the episode or check out the full show notes on our blog at www.ptonice.com/blog.

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All right, good morning everybody and welcome to the PT on Ice daily show. My name is Cody Gingrich. I’m one of the lead faculty in the extremity division coming to you on a clinical Tuesday. So getting into it, what I want to talk about today is talking about palpation and using a good palpation exam in your objective exam for doing some differential diagnosis. We’re going to talk about the upper extremity and the lower extremity and why doing a really solid palpation job in those areas, specifically when you’re dealing with extremity management. is going to be super, super important when you’re trying to differentiate, is this something that might be more of an extremity issue or is this potentially something that’s coming more from the spine, okay? We’re going to talk about different things that you might see from a subjective standpoint that might lead you to figuring out, not having a super clear picture on which of those two things it might be.

So we’re going to start in the upper extremity, okay? So things that you might see or hear, I guess, from your patient when you’re doing your subjective exam. right? Numbness and tingling that comes down the arm that comes down lower than the, um, than the clavicle elbow, potentially even all the way into the hand. Okay. Anything noticing tingling. A lot of times when we hear numbness, tingling, we’re immediately clued into, Oh, that might be a nervous system problem. That can be a cervical radiculopathy, all of those types of things. but then some of their other aggravating factors are going to be, right? Potentially sitting at a desk, if it’s a more of a fitness athlete, pressing overhead, all of those type of things might bring out their symptoms. So if they’re sitting, if they’re driving, where they could be stressing the actual cervical spine, but they could also be very much stressing that posterior shoulder, okay? Another thing that I see all the time is anterior shoulder pain. Okay, anterior shoulder pain with a lot of pressing type of movements and a lot of times if you know someone’s sleeping on that shoulder or whatever else, we need to figure out is that coming from that anterior shoulder, but also we get a lot of referral from the posterior shoulder that pings right to that anterior shoulder. Okay, so I want to talk about how then your palpation job is going to be most efficient in bringing out some of those symptoms. The number one thing is you have to have a system. You have to have a system to know when you’re going, where you’re going to be and how you get back to that spot every time and how you touch each and every muscle area on what you’re trying to palpate. In the extremities, specifically posterior shoulder and posterior hip when we get to it, posterior lateral hip, you can actually hit all of those structures and feel good about where you are palpating is touching what you want to touch. In the spine and areas like that, there are so many layers of tissue, you can’t really always say, like, I know what I’m on, but specifically in the back of the shoulder, you can say, I’m on infraspinatus, I’m on supraspinatus, I’m touching teres. All of those things can be very confident that you’re hitting that. So where do you want to start? Inferior angle of the scapula. Then you work laterally. You know then when you work laterally and you come back to that inferior angle, you go thumb, thumb, and then you start here and then you work away again. Come back, thumb, thumb, thumb. Now you’re three thumb widths up. Each time you’re touching your thumb, like working and doing your palpation every time. Now the key with this is if you find a spot and your patient says, Ooh yeah, that’s tender. You can’t just say, oh great, and move on. You need to spend some time in that area and hold and sustain that pressure. If in this objective they said, well it takes sometimes half of the day in order to bring out my symptoms where I start to get that tingling, then four seconds of you palpating that area on the back of their shoulder is not going to be enough to bring out those symptoms. Maybe 30 seconds, maybe 40 seconds of you really sustaining pressure there is going to be necessary before maybe they start saying, Oh, you know what? It’s not just tender there anymore. It’s actually starting to creep a little bit here. That’s when you can say, Oh, well, maybe that extremity management or that extremities focus is going to be where we need to be. And it’s not as much in the cervical spine, right? So that’s where you want to really pay attention to what you’re doing. You don’t always have to get symptoms all the way down the arm, because that may take a very long time for them to get those symptoms all the way down. But if it starts to creep, down the arm like this, you can be pretty confident. There’s definitely something coming from that shoulder, that posterior shoulder, where it is relevant as opposed to the cervical spine. Same exact conversation. We’re talking about anterior shoulder pain. We are really thinking a lot of times when someone says, Hey, yeah, it hurts right here. First clue might be like, Oh, that might be some biceps, uh, tendonitis, tendinopathy, something like that. But If you, and most people are going to be tender when you palpate right on that anterior shoulder. Note that, but also make sure you do that really solid palpation job on the backside of the shoulder and sustain some pressure. If they find some, if you find something that’s tender, sustain that pressure very often. They’re going to say, Oh, you know what? I actually do feel that in the front of the shoulder. Okay. Now we need to be hitting the back of the shoulder to treat the front of the shoulder. Okay. And that’s where our differential diagnosis, that hypothesis list that we generate from the subjective exam pressing, right? You’re like, Oh, okay. That’s an anterior shoulder. Definitely a lot of heavy work for the anterior shoulder. But if we’re pressing, if we’re really working our elbows into that front rack or something like that, that post to your shoulder and that rotator cuff in the back is also getting a lot of work to get that hand on top of your elbow. Okay, so both things are relevant there. Those are going to be the two main things in the upper extremity that you’re wanting to change that hypothesis list. Cervical spine, we’re getting a lot of just numbness, tingling symptoms down the arm. Okay. If the cervical spine is not blipping a bunch of that stuff, check posterior cuff. Same thing with anterior shoulder. If they’re saying anterior shoulder, I get that when I’m benching, when I’m pressing, when I’m whatever, palpate the back of the shoulder, make sure you’re doing a good job sustaining pressure. This position right here is occluding blood flow to the back of the shoulder where we sit almost all day, just like this. We are now no longer giving the back of our shoulder a really good environment to allow blood flow and healing. Okay? And so if they’re just tugging on those structures all day long, now all of a sudden sitting at a desk can bring out some of those symptoms.

Shifting gears to the posterior lateral hip, very similar conversation. In extremity management, palpation can matter. You can be confident in what you are palpating to know that you’re on the structures that you are trying to hit. Again, you want to have a system. There are two ways that you can really create your system. If you want to start at the greater trochanter and work your way superiorly, you can do that. And then each time, you know, I went immediately superior from this greater trochanter, we’re hitting glute med, and then we are working and fanning away from the iliac crest. and we can work away that way to the posterior hip. So that way we can know we’ve hit glute med, we’ve hit glute min, we’ve hit glute max. You can also start from the PSIS and work your way more anteriorly and then down to the greater trochanter. Very similar in that you will probably need to sustain pressure. There are people that are going to be mostly tender there. If you find tender spots, sustain some pressure. if you have not sustained pressure for upwards of 30 to 45 seconds to at least see if symptoms have changed at all. And the question is, are you still feeling that right under my thumbs or has that started to creep anywhere? you’ll get symptoms all the way down the leg. If we’re trying to differentiate between lumbar radiculopathy, symptoms down the leg, into the calf, all the way into the foot, can be symptom generators coming from glute med, glute med. They can also be symptom generators of the spine. Okay, you have to get on those structures and see, is there anything creeping? Do you feel changes in your foot in your calf when I’m sustaining pressure on the muscle tissue? If you are on the muscle tissue, you can be pretty confident that that is not a back thing anymore, at least not fully. And you need to then have a good understanding of where am I? Can I then treat that out? We need to pump some blood to it. If we need to do dry needling, if we need to do some soft tissue and then work some strength, some blood perfusion type of exercises there. Okay. Also, hamstring type of things where people are not sure did I tweak a do I have like a high hamstring injury? Do I have more of a low back injury? That’s another differential. When you’re here and subjectively right sitting prolonged sitting is going to bring on these symptoms. Well, prolonged SIM sitting is stressing the lumbar spine, you are sitting in some lumbar flexion when you’re sitting. The other thing that you’re doing is you are occluding blood flow to that posterolateral hip at the same time. Okay, so both things can happen and then that can create irritation to the tissue. Very similar to this posture, any prolonged sitting can bring on that posterolateral occluding blood to that aorta and bring on tissue dysfunction. And that can create symptoms down the leg, again, hamstring, calf, foot, ankle, anything like that.

Okay. So the big takeaways here are subjectively, these things are going to feel, you’re going to have your hypothesis list, but you may not be like, they might be pretty equal when we’re talking about the hypothesis list before you touch the objective exam. Then, same thing, when you’re going through your objective exam, if you just do range of motion, if you do lumbar flexion range of motion, and that comes out, potentially you have stress lumbar flexion, yes, you are also tugging on your posterior lateral hip when you bend forward into flexion. Okay, so don’t forget to make sure that you are ruling out that palpation and that lat posterior lateral hip in the hip, or that posterior shoulder when you’re in the upper extremity, because those things might still be relevant. And you need to do a good job in palpating to make sure that you are clearing those areas and creating a really solid differential. because subjectively your hypothesis list is going to be very equal going into objective exam and not always with functional movements or range of motion. Are you going to really be able to bump one of those things up or down? But if you get into that palpation and say, you know, I’ve hit these areas and it wasn’t maybe it was tender, but I sustained that pressure and I made sure I hit every single section because I was efficient and I was clean with where I was going each time and nothing really came out. then you can be pretty confident. Maybe it’s not those tissues in the posterior shoulder or the posterolateral hip. Maybe we are looking more at the spine, okay? So that’s really what I wanted to come on here and talk about today. In the extremity management division, we touch on that briefly when we’re going through our objective exam, but I wanted to give a little bit more clarity today on what exactly you’re looking for subjectively, and then how can you make a really clean objective palpation exam when you’re trying to differentially diagnose. So that’s what I wanted to come on here and touch on today. If you want to catch Extremity Management on the road here in the next couple weeks, we’ve got Lindsey on the road out in Carson City this weekend, so if you want to catch Mark or myself, both of us are on the road March 16th and 17th. I will be in Aiken, South Carolina. Mark will be in Spring, Texas. So we pretty much have West Coast to East Coast covered here over the next month or so. So jump into one of those courses. We’d love to see you out. And hopefully we will catch you all tomorrow on the iShow.

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