A systematic review of the diagnostic accuracy of provocative tests of the neck for diagnosing cervical radiculopathy

Eur Spine J. 2007 Mar;16(3):307-19. doi: 10.1007/s00586-006-0225-6. Epub 2006 Sep 30.


Clinical provocative tests of the neck, which position the neck and arm inorder to aggravate or relieve arm symptoms, are commonly used in clinical practice in patients with a suspected cervical radiculopathy. Their diagnostic accuracy, however, has never been examined in a systematic review. A comprehensive search was conducted in order to identify all possible studies fulfilling the inclusion criteria. A study was included if: (1) any provocative test of the neck for diagnosing cervical radiculopathy was identified; (2) any reference standard was used; (3) sensitivity and specificity were reported or could be (re-)calculated; and, (4) the publication was a full report. Two reviewers independently selected studies, and assessed methodological quality. Only six studies met the inclusion criteria, which evaluated five provocative tests. In general, Spurling's test demonstrated low to moderate sensitivity and high specificity, as did traction/neck distraction, and Valsalva's maneuver. The upper limb tension test (ULTT) demonstrated high sensitivity and low specificity, while the shoulder abduction test demonstrated low to moderate sensitivity and moderate to high specificity. Common methodological flaws included lack of an optimal reference standard, disease progression bias, spectrum bias, and review bias. Limitations include few primary studies, substantial heterogeneity, and numerous methodological flaws among the studies; therefore, a meta-analysis was not conducted. This review suggests that, when consistent with the history and other physical findings, a positive Spurling's, traction/neck distraction, and Valsalva's might be indicative of a cervical radiculopathy, while a negative ULTT might be used to rule it out. However, the lack of evidence precludes any firm conclusions regarding their diagnostic value, especially when used in primary care. More high quality studies are necessary in order to resolve this issue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / methods*
  • Humans
  • Prognosis
  • Radiculopathy / classification
  • Radiculopathy / diagnosis*
  • Reference Standards
  • Sensitivity and Specificity