Screening for head, neck, and shoulder pathology in patients with upper extremity signs and symptoms

J Hand Ther. 2010 Apr-Jun;23(2):173-85; quiz 186. doi: 10.1016/j.jht.2009.11.004. Epub 2010 Feb 11.


NARRATIVE REVIEW: Conditions of the head, neck, thorax, and shoulder may occur simultaneously with arm pathology or produce symptoms perceived by the patient to originate in the elbow, wrist, or hand. Identification of the tissue disorder and associated impairments, followed by matching the rehabilitative intervention to address these issues, leads to optimal outcomes. With this goal in mind, the hand therapist needs to recognize clinical findings that signal potentially serious medical conditions of the brain, cervical region, chest, or shoulder. Additionally, less serious but potentially debilitating, musculoskeletal or neurogenic pain from proximal sources must also be differentiated from somatic pain originating in the elbow, wrist, or hand so that the clinician can decide to further examine and intervene or refer to an appropriate health care provider. This article describes clinical findings that suggest the presence of serious medical pathology in the head, neck, or thorax and presents a screening algorithm to assist in discriminating pain derived from local structures in the distal arm from referred pain originating in the more proximal regions of the shoulder, thorax, neck, or brain.

Level of evidence: 5.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / diagnosis
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening
  • Medical History Taking*
  • Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis
  • Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Pain, Referred / diagnosis
  • Pain, Referred / physiopathology
  • Physical Examination*
  • Physical Therapy Specialty
  • Upper Extremity / injuries
  • Upper Extremity / innervation
  • Upper Extremity / physiopathology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / diagnosis
  • Wounds and Injuries / physiopathology