Physical and Neurologic Examination

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Chapter 12 Physical and Neurologic Examination

Recent advances in medical technologies and changes in health care systems have dramatically altered the practice of medicine and the physician-patient relationship. One consequence of these changes, unfortunately, is that the physical examination is no longer the focus of many physician-patient encounters and is often overlooked when important clinical decisions are made. In the field of spinal surgery, the widespread availability of neuroimaging of the spinal column and modern health care policies regulating coverage of elective surgery are two factors that have contributed to this change. Patients who are often referred for their initial consultation with their MRI “in hand” worry more about the radiologist’s interpretation of the scan than their symptoms. In many instances, patients are required to consult with multiple surgeons and receive conflicting recommendations regarding the appropriateness of surgical treatment. In this environment, it is essential for the surgeon to place a priority on the fundamentals of history taking and the neurologic examination to establish good rapport with patients and guide them in choosing the best therapy.

History Taking

A surgeon’s ability to efficiently obtain a thorough history is the cornerstone of treating patients with spinal disorders. The foundation of good history taking lies in being a good listener. Communicating a genuine interest in the patient and a willingness to offer both surgical and nonsurgical treatment are of paramount importance. This is true in both straightforward and complicated patients (such as those suffering from chronic pain syndromes). Using simple, open-ended questions early in the interview allows patients to articulate their perception of the problem and helps the physician identify treatment goals. The physician can then ask a patient more focused questions to obtain the necessary information to formulate a preliminary differential diagnosis. For example, asking the patient to point to the area of maximum pain and to trace the pattern of their pain or paresthesia often yields valuable diagnostic information.

Careful review of the patient’s past medical history is important to uncover conditions with symptoms commonly seen in patients with spinal pathology. Diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, inflammatory arthropathies, and neoplastic disorders are common examples. Any history of trauma involving the spine and related surgical procedures should be noted, in addition to injuries involving the shoulder, hip, and long bones. Unrecognized compression neuropathies secondary to casting, for example, can subsequently be confused with radiculopathy. Retroperitoneal hematoma may present as a femoral or an upper lumbar radiculopathy.1 It is also important to inquire about a history of any psychiatric disorders and pain syndromes associated with joints, muscles, or connective tissues. Fibromyalgia and reflex sympathetic dystrophy can alter perioperative pain management and may require additional attention. Inquiry about smoking history is also important because smoking has been demonstrated to increase the incidence of pseudarthrosis compared with nonsmoking.2

Taking a good history regarding pain associated with spinal disorders deserves special attention. Radicular pain tends to be constant but may be exacerbated by movement or Valsalva maneuvers. The pain occurs in the distribution of the affected nerve root and may have dysesthetic qualities. Mechanical back pain resulting from degenerative disc disease, spondylotic changes of the facets, or gross instability from trauma or cancer tends to be worse with movement and relieved with rest. The pain associated with neurogenic pseudoclaudication is typically an aching or cramping pain in the buttocks, thighs, or legs that becomes worse with standing and walking short distances and is relieved with bending, sitting, or reclining. Pain or paresthesia in the hands that awakens the patient at night and is relieved by shaking the hand is a red flag for nerve entrapment. Pain or paresthesia radiating to the upper extremities that is associated with medial scapular pain is more likely to be radicular in origin.

It is noteworthy that not all patients in neurosurgical consultation have neurologic disease processes. Other etiologies mimicking neurologic syndromes must be considered.

Components of the Neurologic Examination

After completing the relevant portions of the general examination, the neurologic examination is performed. The surgeon may choose to focus the examination on a particular spinal region, but patients often complain of symptoms referable to both the cervical and thoracolumbar spine, particularly those with extensive spondylosis. A comprehensive examination may also be beneficial, for example, by uncovering signs of cervical myelopathy in a patient who needs lumbar decompression and may be at risk for neurologic deterioration during positioning or intubation. Evaluation of cranial nerve function should be included in patients with bulbar symptoms or with coexisting head and spinal trauma. A comprehensive examination should include (1) generalized inspection of the patient, emphasizing cutaneous features, posture, and gait analysis; (2) inspection and palpation of the entire spinal column, with range of motion (ROM) testing of both the spine and joints of affected extremities; (3) sensory and motor evaluation; (4) an assessment of normal and pathologic reflexes; and (5) provocative nerve root testing if previous examination has raised the suspicion of radiculopathy. The order in which these modalities are tested is dictated by surgeon preference, but minimizing patient movement and reserving maneuvers that may cause pain for the end of the examination are important considerations.


A generalized inspection of the patient with emphasis on cutaneous features, posture, and gait is carried out as the patient first appears for evaluation and the history is reviewed.


Inspection of the spinal column as a single unit should be performed from both a lateral and posterior viewpoint in standing and forward bending positions. Abnormalities in spinal balance in both the sagittal and coronal planes can be pathologic and have important implications when considering surgical deformity correction. Asymmetry of paravertebral muscles, spinous processes, skin creases, shoulders, scapulae, and hips may be appreciated in patients with scoliosis.3 Coronal imbalance can be assessed clinically by examining the standing patient from behind and measuring the distance between a plumb line dropped from C7 and the gluteal cleft. Sagittal imbalance may be implied when a patient stoops forward when walking or sitting. It is best determined by a plumb line from C7 to the sacrum on lateral radiographs.4 A compensatory forward rocking of the pelvis and flexion of the knees while standing may be seen in severe cases. The recognition of sagittal imbalance is paramount to precise surgical planning, especially when planning for deformity correction.

Gait Analysis

Examination of a patient’s gait is an invaluable component of the neurologic examination. Watching patients walk as they appear for consultation, even before formal testing begins, can be of diagnostic value.

Palpation and Range of Motion Testing of the Spine and Related Areas

Formal palpation and ROM testing of the spinal column, shoulders, hips, and pelvis are also included in a comprehensive examination. The spinous processes of the entire vertebral column are palpated and assessed for tenderness and associated paravertebral muscle spasm. Splaying of adjacent spinous processes or a palpable stepoff may indicate spondylolisthesis. Patients with fibromyalgia and related disorders frequently complain of pain exacerbated by stimulation of multiple trigger points. Axial rotation, flexion, extension, and lateral bending are assessed for each region of the spine.

Cervical Spine

In the cervical spine, the resting head position is noted before evaluation of ROM. A patient with a fixed rotation or tilt to one side may have an underlying unilateral facet dislocation. Although precise quantitative evaluation of ROM is not typically performed, the clinician should note obvious limitations and which maneuvers generate pain. Pain or restricted rotation of the head, 50% of which occurs at C1-2, 6 may indicate a pathologic process at this level. Head rotation associated with vertigo, tinnitus, visual alterations, or facial pain may be nonspecific, but occlusion of the vertebral artery should be included in the differential. Selecki7 showed that rotation of the head more than 45 degrees could significantly kink the contralateral vertebral artery. Extension and rotation of the head can exacerbate pre-existing nerve root compression, and flexion in the setting of cord compression often causes paresthesia in both the arms and legs (Lhermitte sign).

Thoracic Spine

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