Physical tests for shoulder impingement in primary care

Impingement (or pinching) of soft-tissues in or around the shoulder is a common cause of pain and is often linked to tissue damage in and around the joint. If doctors and therapists could identify impingement and associated damage using simple, physical tests, it would help them to inform on the best treatment approach at an early stage. We were particularly interested in the primary (community) care setting, because this is where most shoulder pain is diagnosed and managed. We reviewed original research papers for evidence on the accuracy of physical tests for shoulder impingement or associated damage, in people whose symptoms and/or history suggest any of these disorders. To find the research papers, we searched the main electronic databases of medical and allied literature up to 2010. Two review authors screened assessed the quality of each research paper and extracted important information. If multiple research papers reported using the same test for the same condition, we intended to combine their results to gain a more precise estimate of the test's accuracy. We included 33 research papers. These related to studies of 4002 shoulders in 3852 patients. None of the studies exclusively looked at patients from primary care, though two recruited some of their patients from primary care. The majority of studies used arthroscopic surgery as the reference standard. There were 170 different target condition/index test combinations but only six instances where the same test was used in the same way, and for the same reason, in two studies. For this reason combining results was not appropriate. We concluded that there is insufficient evidence upon which to base selection of physical tests for shoulder impingement, and potentially related conditions, in primary care.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is insufficient evidence upon which to base selection of physical tests for shoulder impingements, and local lesions of bursa, tendon or labrum that may accompany impingement, in primary care. The large body of literature revealed extreme diversity in the performance and interpretation of tests, which hinders synthesis of the evidence and/or clinical applicability.

Read the full abstract...

Impingement is a common cause of shoulder pain. Impingement mechanisms may occur subacromially (under the coraco-acromial arch) or internally (within the shoulder joint), and a number of secondary pathologies may be associated. These include subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis (inflammation of the subacromial portion of the bursa, the subdeltoid portion, or both), tendinopathy or tears affecting the rotator cuff or the long head of biceps tendon, and glenoid labral damage. Accurate diagnosis based on physical tests would facilitate early optimisation of the clinical management approach. Most people with shoulder pain are diagnosed and managed in the primary care setting.


To evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of physical tests for shoulder impingements (subacromial or internal) or local lesions of bursa, rotator cuff or labrum that may accompany impingement, in people whose symptoms and/or history suggest any of these disorders.

Search strategy: 

We searched electronic databases for primary studies in two stages. In the first stage, we searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, AMED and DARE (all from inception to November 2005). In the second stage, we searched MEDLINE, EMBASE and AMED (2005 to 15 February 2010). Searches were delimited to articles written in English.

Selection criteria: 

We considered for inclusion diagnostic test accuracy studies that directly compared the accuracy of one or more physical index tests for shoulder impingement against a reference test in any clinical setting. We considered diagnostic test accuracy studies with cross-sectional or cohort designs (retrospective or prospective), case-control studies and randomised controlled trials.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two pairs of review authors independently performed study selection, assessed the study quality using QUADAS, and extracted data onto a purpose-designed form, noting patient characteristics (including care setting), study design, index tests and reference standard, and the diagnostic 2 x 2 table. We presented information on sensitivities and specificities with 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) for the index tests. Meta-analysis was not performed.

Main results: 

We included 33 studies involving 4002 shoulders in 3852 patients. Although 28 studies were prospective, study quality was still generally poor. Mainly reflecting the use of surgery as a reference test in most studies, all but two studies were judged as not meeting the criteria for having a representative spectrum of patients. However, even these two studies only partly recruited from primary care.

The target conditions assessed in the 33 studies were grouped under five main categories: subacromial or internal impingement, rotator cuff tendinopathy or tears, long head of biceps tendinopathy or tears, glenoid labral lesions and multiple undifferentiated target conditions. The majority of studies used arthroscopic surgery as the reference standard. Eight studies utilised reference standards which were potentially applicable to primary care (local anaesthesia, one study; ultrasound, three studies) or the hospital outpatient setting (magnetic resonance imaging, four studies). One study used a variety of reference standards, some applicable to primary care or the hospital outpatient setting. In two of these studies the reference standard used was acceptable for identifying the target condition, but in six it was only partially so. The studies evaluated numerous standard, modified, or combination index tests and 14 novel index tests. There were 170 target condition/index test combinations, but only six instances of any index test being performed and interpreted similarly in two studies. Only two studies of a modified empty can test for full thickness tear of the rotator cuff, and two studies of a modified anterior slide test for type II superior labrum anterior to posterior (SLAP) lesions, were clinically homogenous. Due to the limited number of studies, meta-analyses were considered inappropriate. Sensitivity and specificity estimates from each study are presented on forest plots for the 170 target condition/index test combinations grouped according to target condition.