Background: Clinicians nominate the distribution of leg pain as being important in diagnosing nerve root involvement. This study aimed to identify: (i) common unisegmental radicular pain patterns and whether they were dermatomal, and (ii) whether these radicular pain patterns assisted clinician discrimination of the nerve root level involved.
Methods: A cross-sectional diagnostic accuracy study of adult patients with radicular leg pain at a hospital in Denmark. All patients had positive neurological signs (average 2.8 signs - hypoalgesia, diminished reflexes, muscle weakness, positive Straight Leg Raise test).
Part 1 (pain patterns) was a secondary analysis of baseline pain pattern data collected during a clinical trial. The pain charts of 93 patients with an MRI and clinically confirmed single-level disc herniation with nerve root compression were digitised and layered to form a composite picture of the radicular patterns for the L5 and S1 nerve roots, which were then compared to published dermatomes.
In Part 2 (clinical utility) we prospectively measured the discriminative ability of the identified pain patterns. The accuracy was calculated of three groups of six clinicians at classifying the nerve root affected in a randomized sequence of 53 patients, when not shown, briefly shown or continuously shown the composite pain patterns. In each group were two chiropractors, two medical doctors and two physiotherapists.
Results: There was a wide overlap in pain patterns from compromised L5 and S1 nerve roots but some distinguishing features. These pain patterns had approximately 50 to 80% overlap with published dermatomes. Clinicians were unable to determine with any accuracy above chance whether an individual pain drawing was from a person with a compromised L5 or S1 nerve root, and use of the composite pain drawings did not improve that accuracy.
Conclusions: While pain distribution may be an indication of radiculopathy, pain patterns from L5 or S1 nerve root compression only approximated those of sensory dermatomes, and level-specific knowledge about radicular pain patterns did not assist clinicians’ diagnostic accuracy of the nerve root impinged. These results indicate that, on their own, pain patterns provide very limited additional diagnostic information about which individual nerve root is affected.
Author keywords: Disc herniation — Spinal nerve roots — Radiculopathy — Pain drawings — Dermatomes — Discrimination — Diagnostic accuracy
Author affiliations: HBA: The Modic Clinic, Odense, Denmark; JKH, HS: Research Department, Spine Centre of Southern Denmark, Lillebaelt Hospital, Middelfart, Denmark; PK: School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia; PK: Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark
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