Background: Trigger points are promoted as an important cause of musculoskeletal pain. There is no accepted reference standard for the diagnosis of trigger points, and data on the reliability of physical examination for trigger points are conflicting.
Objectives: To systematically review the literature on the reliability of physical examination for the diagnosis of trigger points.
Methods: MEDLINE, EMBASE, and other sources were searched for articles reporting the reliability of physical examination for trigger points. Included studies were evaluated for their quality and applicability, and reliability estimates were extracted and reported.
Results: Nine studies were eligible for inclusion. None satisfied all quality and applicability criteria. No study specifically reported reliability for the identification of the location of active trigger points in the muscles of symptomatic participants. Reliability estimates varied widely for each diagnostic sign, for each muscle, and across each study. Reliability estimates were generally higher for subjective signs such as tenderness (kappa range, 0.22-1.0) and pain reproduction (kappa range, 0.57-1.00), and lower for objective signs such as the taut band (kappa range, -0.08-0.75) and local twitch response (kappa range, -0.05-0.57).
Conclusions: No study to date has reported the reliability of trigger point diagnosis according to the currently proposed criteria. On the basis of the limited number of studies available, and significant problems with their design, reporting, statistical integrity, and clinical applicability, physical examination cannot currently be recommended as a reliable test for the diagnosis of trigger points. The reliability of trigger point diagnosis needs to be further investigated with studies of high quality that use current diagnostic criteria in clinically relevant patients.