Interpreting joint pain: quantitative sensory testing in musculoskeletal management

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010 Dec;40(12):818-25. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2010.3314. Epub 2010 Oct 22.


Pain is a common complaint among clients seeking physical therapy services, yet interpretation of associated sensory changes can be difficult for the clinician. Musculoskeletal injury typically results in nociceptive pain due to noxious stimuli of the damaged muscle or joint tissues. However, with progression from acute to chronic stages, altered nociceptive processing can give rise to an array of sensory findings. Specifically, patients with chronic joint injury may present with signs and symptoms typically associated with neuropathic injury, due to changes in nociceptive processing. Clinical presentation may include expansion of hyperalgesia into adjacent and remote areas, allodynia, dysesthesias, and perceptual deficits. Quantitative sensory testing (QST) may provide an objective method of examining sensation and, thereby, of recognizing potential changes in the nociceptive pathways. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of altered nociceptive processing and somatosensory changes that may occur following a musculoskeletal injury without associated neural injury. Recommendations are made on clinical uses of quantitative sensory testing in orthopaedic physical therapy practice, and supporting clinical and laboratory evidence are presented. Examples related to joint injury are discussed, specifically, osteoarthritis of the knee and low back pain. Quantitative sensory testing may be a useful clinical tool to aid clinical decision making and for determination of prognosis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Joint Diseases / complications
  • Joint Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Joint Diseases / physiopathology
  • Low Back Pain / complications
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Musculoskeletal System / injuries*
  • Osteoarthritis / complications
  • Osteoarthritis / diagnosis*
  • Osteoarthritis / physiopathology
  • Pain / diagnosis*
  • Pain / etiology
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain Threshold
  • Physical Examination / methods
  • Psychophysics
  • Somatosensory Disorders / physiopathology*