Ultrasound measures of tendon thickness: Intra-rater, Inter-rater and Inter-machine reliability

Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2017 May 10;7(1):192-199. doi: 10.11138/mltj/2017.7.1.192. eCollection 2017 Jan-Mar.


Background: Ultrasound imaging is often used by physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals but the reliability of image acquisition with different ultrasound machines is unknown. The objective was to compare the intra-rater, inter-rater and intermachine reliability of thickness measurements of the plantar fascia (PF), Achilles tendon (AT), patellar tendon (PT) and elbow common extensor tendon (ECET) with musculoskeletal ultrasound imaging (MSUS).

Methods: Tendon thickness was measured in four anatomical structures (14 participants, 28 images per tendon) by two sonographers and with two different ultrasound machines. Intraclass Correlation Coefficients (ICCs) and Bland-Altman plots were calculated. The standard error of measurement (SEM) and minimum detectable difference (MDD) were calculated.

Results: Inter-rater reliability was excellent for AT (ICC=0.98; 95% CI= 0.96-0.99) and very good for PT (ICC=0.85; 95% CI = 0.67-0.93) and ECET (ICC=0.81; 95% CI= 0.72-0.94). Reliability for PF was moderate, with an ICC of 0.63 (CI 95%= 0.20-0.83). Bland-Altman plot for inter-machine reliability showed a mean difference of 1 m for PF measurements and a mean difference of 4 m and 20 m for AT and PT. The relative SEMs were below 7% and the MDCs were below 0.7 mm.

Conclusion: The MSUS reliability in measuring thickness of the four tendons is confirmed by the homogeneous readings intra sonographers, between operators and between different machines. Level of evidence: Tendon thickness can be measured reliably on different ultrasound devices, which is an important step forward in the use of this technique in daily clinical practice and research.

Level of evidence: III.

Keywords: quantitative ultrasound; reliability; tendinopathy; ultrasound imaging.