Shoulder pain is a one of the common complaint in family practice patients. The unique anatomy and range of motion of the should joint can present a diagnostic challenge, but a proper clinical evaluation usually discloses the cause of the pain. Family physicians need to understand diagnostic and treatment strategies for common causes of shoulder pain. Examination of the shoulder should include inspection, palpation, evaluation of range of motion and provocative testing. In addition, a thorough sensorimotor examination of the upper extremity should be performed, and the neck and elbow should be evaluated.
The physical examination includes observing the way the patient moves and carries the shoulder. The patient should be properly disrobed to permit complete inspection of both shoulders. Swelling, asymmetry, muscle atrophy, scars, ecchymosis and any venous distention should be noted. Deformity, such as squaring of the shoulder that occurs with anterior dislocation, can immediately suggest a diagnosis. Scapular “winging,” which can be associated with shoulder instability and serratus anterior or trapezius dysfunction, should be noted. Atrophy of the supraspinatus or infraspinatus should prompt a further work-up for such conditions as rotator cuff tear, suprascapular nerve entrapment or neuropathy.
Palpation should include examination of the acromioclavicular and sternoclavicular joints, the cervical spine and the biceps tendon. The anterior glenohumeral joint, coracoid process, acromion and scapula should also be palpated for any tenderness and deformity.
Because the complex series of articulations of the shoulder allows a wide range of motion, the affected extremity should be compared with the unaffected side to determine the patient’s normal range. Active and passive ranges should be assessed. For example, a patient with loss of active motion alone is more likely to have weakness of the affected muscles than joint disease.
Shoulder abduction involves the glenohumeral joint and the scapulothoracic articulation. Glenohumeral motion can be isolated by holding the patient’s scapula with one hand while the patient abducts the arm. The first 20 to 30 degrees of abduction should not require scapulothoracic motion. With the arm internally rotated (palm down), abduction continues to 120 degrees. Beyond 120 degrees, full abduction is possible only when the humerus is externally rotated (palm up).
The Apley scratch test is another useful maneuver to assess shoulder range of motion. In this test, abduction and external rotation are measured by having the patient reach behind the head and touch the superior aspect of the opposite scapula. Conversely, internal rotation and adduction of the shoulder are tested by having the patient reach behind the back and touch the inferior aspect of the opposite scapula. External rotation should be measured with the patient’s arms at the side and elbows flexed to 90 degrees.
A possible rotator cuff tear can be evaluated with the drop-arm test. This test is performed by passively abducting the patient’s shoulder, then observing as the patient slowly lowers the arm to the waist. Often, the arm will drop to the side if the patient has a rotator cuff tear or supraspinatus dysfunction. The patient may be able to lower the arm slowly to 90 degrees (because this is a function mostly of the deltoid muscle) but will be unable to continue the maneuver as far as the waist.
In a patient with neck pain or pain that radiates below the elbow, a useful maneuver to further evaluate the cervical spine is Spurling’s test. The patient’s cervical spine is placed in extension and the head rotated toward the affected shoulder. An axial load is then placed on the spine. Reproduction of the patient’s shoulder or arm pain indicates possible cervical nerve root compression and warrants further evaluation of the bony and soft tissue structures of the cervical spine.
Click HERE to Watch Spurling’s Test Video tutorial.
Shoulder Exam Video.
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