Physical examination for partial tears of the biceps tendon

Harpreet S Gill, George El Rassi, Michael S Bahk, Renan C Castillo, Edward G McFarland
American Journal of Sports Medicine 2007, 35 (8): 1334-40

BACKGROUND: The accuracy of the physical examination for tears of the long head of the biceps remains controversial.

PURPOSE: The goals were 1) to characterize the occurrence of partial tears of the long head of the biceps tendon in a group of consecutive patients, and 2) to analyze the diagnostic value of various clinical tests for pathologic lesions of the proximal biceps tendon.

STUDY DESIGN: Cohort study (diagnosis); Level of evidence, 2.

METHODS: Of 847 consecutive patients who underwent arthroscopic procedures for a variety of shoulder conditions, 40 were found at the time of arthroscopy to have partial biceps tendon tears. The average age of these 24 men and 16 women was 59 years (range, 18-83). Preoperative physical examinations had included 9 commonly used tests for shoulder examination. Statistical analysis included sensitivity, specificity, negative predictive value, positive predictive value, and likelihood ratios for these tests.

RESULTS: The prevalence rate of partial tears was 5% (40/847) of all arthroscopic procedures. The most commonly associated conditions included rotator cuff tears (85% [34/40]) and anterior instability (7.5% [3/40]). Tenderness on palpation of the long head of the biceps tendon had a sensitivity of 53%, a specificity of 54%, and a likelihood ratio of 1.13. The sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value, negative predictive value, and likelihood ratios for Speed's test were 50%, 67%, 8%, 96%, and 1.51, respectively.

CONCLUSION: In patients with rotator cuff abnormality, the diagnosis of partial biceps tears cannot be made reliably with existing physical examination tests. Diagnostic arthroscopy is recommended, if clinically indicated, for potential partial tears of the long head of the biceps tendon. The treating physician should be prepared to treat unsuspected tears of the long head of the biceps tendon at the time of surgery.

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