What does local tenderness say about the origin of pain? An investigation of cervical zygapophysial joint pain

Anesth Analg. 2010 Mar 1;110(3):923-7. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e3181cbd8f4.


Background: Mechanical pain sensitivity is assessed in every patient with pain, either by palpation or by quantitative pressure algometry. Despite widespread use, no studies have formally addressed the usefulness of this practice for the identification of the source of pain. We tested the hypothesis that assessing mechanical pain sensitivity distinguishes damaged from healthy cervical zygapophysial (facet) joints.

Methods: Thirty-three patients with chronic unilateral neck pain were studied. Pressure pain thresholds (PPTs) were assessed bilaterally at all cervical zygapophysial joints. The diagnosis of zygapophysial joint pain was made by selective nerve blocks. Primary analysis was the comparison of the PPT between symptomatic and contralateral asymptomatic joints. The secondary end points were as follows: differences in PPT between affected and asymptomatic joints of the same side of patients with zygapophysial joint pain; differences in PPT at the painful side between patients with and without zygapophysial joint pain; and sensitivity and specificity of PPT for 2 different cutoffs (difference in PPT between affected and contralateral side by 1 and 30 kPa, meaning that the test was considered positive if the difference in PPT between painful and contralateral side was negative by at least 1 and 30 kPa, respectively). The PPT of patients was also compared with the PPT of 12 pain-free subjects.

Results: Zygapophysial joint pain was present in 14 patients. In these cases, the difference in mean PPT between affected and contralateral side (primary analysis) was -6.2 kPa (95% confidence interval: -19.5 to 7.2, P = 0.34). In addition, the secondary analyses yielded no statistically significant differences. For the cutoff of 1 kPa, sensitivity and specificity of PPT were 67% and 16%, respectively, resulting in a positive likelihood ratio of 0.79 and a diagnostic confidence of 38%. When the cutoff of 30 kPa was considered, the sensitivity decreased to only 13%, whereas the specificity increased to 95%, resulting in a positive likelihood ratio of 2.53 and a diagnostic confidence of 67%. The PPT was significantly lower in patients than in pain-free subjects (P < 0.001).

Conclusions: Assessing mechanical pain sensitivity is not diagnostic for cervical zygapophysial joint pain. The finding should stimulate further research into a diagnostic tool that is widely used in the clinical examination of patients with pain.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Arthralgia / diagnosis*
  • Arthralgia / physiopathology
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neck Pain / diagnosis*
  • Neck Pain / physiopathology
  • Nerve Block*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain Threshold*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pressure
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Zygapophyseal Joint / innervation*