The rational clinical examination. Does this patient have clubbing?

JAMA. 2001 Jul 18;286(3):341-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.286.3.341.


Context: The association between digital clubbing and a host of diseases has been recognized since the time of Hippocrates. Although the features of advanced clubbing are familiar to most clinicians, the presence of early clubbing is often a source of debate.

Objective: To perform a systematic review of the literature for information on the precision and accuracy of clinical examination for clubbing.

Data sources: The MEDLINE database from January 1966 to April 1999 was searched for English-language articles related to clubbing. Bibliographies of all retrieved articles and of standard textbooks of physical diagnosis were also searched.

Study selection: Studies selected for data extraction were those in which quantitative or qualitative assessment for clubbing was described in a series of patients. Sixteen studies met these criteria and were included in the final analysis.

Data extraction: Data were extracted by both authors, who independently reviewed and appraised the quality of each article. Data extracted included quantitative indices for distinguishing clubbed from normal digits, precision of clinical examination for clubbing, and accuracy of clubbing as a marker of selected diseases.

Data synthesis: The profile angle, hyponychial angle, and phalangeal depth ratio can be used as quantitative indices to assist in identifying clubbing. In individuals without clubbing, values for these indices do not exceed 176 degrees, 192 degrees, and 1.0, respectively. When clinicians make a global assessment of clubbing at the bedside, interobserver agreement is variable, with kappa values ranging between 0.39 and 0.90. Because of the lack of an objective diagnostic criterion standard, accuracy of physical examination for clubbing is difficult to determine. The accuracy of clubbing as a marker of specific underlying disease has been determined for lung cancer (likelihood ratio, 3.9 with phalangeal depth ratio in excess of 1.0) and for inflammatory bowel disease (likelihood ratio, 2.8 and 3.7 for active Crohn disease and ulcerative colitis, respectively, if clubbing is present).

Conclusions: We recommend use of the profile angle and phalangeal depth ratio as quantitative indices in identifying clubbing. Clinical judgment must be exercised in determining the extent of further evaluation for underlying disease when these values exceed 180 degrees and 1.0, respectively.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Fingers / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Nails
  • Osteoarthropathy, Secondary Hypertrophic / diagnosis*
  • Osteoarthropathy, Secondary Hypertrophic / etiology
  • Physical Examination