Reliability of the American Medical Association guides' model for measuring spinal range of motion. Its implication for whole-person impairment rating

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1999 Feb 1;24(3):262-8. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199902010-00013.


Study design: Repeated measures design for intra- and interrater reliability.

Objectives: To determine the intra- and interrater reliability of the lumbar spine range of motion measured with a dual inclinometer, and the thoracolumbar spine range of motion measured with a long-arm goniometer, as recommended in the American Medical Association Guides.

Summary of background data: The American Medical Association Guides (2nd and 4th editions) recommend using measurements of thoracolumbar and lumbar range of movement, respectively, to estimate the percentage of permanent impairment in patients with chronic low back pain. However, the reliability of this method of estimating impairment has not been determined.

Methods: In all, 34 subjects participated in the study, 21 women with a mean age of 40.1 years (SD, +/- 11.1) and 13 men with a mean age of 47.7 years (SD, +/- 12.1). Measures of thoracolumbar flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation were obtained with a long-arm goniometer. Lumbar flexion, extension, and lateral flexion were measured with a dual inclinometer. Measurements were taken by two examiners on one occasion and by one examiner on two occasions approximately 1 week apart.

Results: The results showed poor intra- and interrater reliability for all measurements taken with both instruments. Measurement error expressed in degrees showed that measurements taken by different raters exhibited systematic as well as random differences. As a result, subjects measured by two different examiners on the same day, with either instrument, could give impairment ratings ranging between 0% and 18% of the whole person (excluding rotation), in which percentage impairment is calculated using the average range of motion and the average systematic and random error in degrees for the group for each movement (flexion, extension, and lateral flexion).

Conclusions: The poor reliability of the American Medical Association Guides' spinal range of motion model can result in marked variation in the percentage of whole-body impairment. These findings have implications for compensation bodies in Australia and other countries that use the American Medical Association Guides' procedure to estimate impairment in chronic low back pain patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • American Medical Association
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis
  • Low Back Pain / epidemiology
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Observer Variation
  • Orthopedic Equipment / standards
  • Pain Measurement
  • Physical Examination / standards*
  • Physical Examination / statistics & numerical data*
  • Range of Motion, Articular*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Rotation
  • Thoracic Vertebrae / physiology*
  • United States