The science of trigger point diagnosis is a confusing mess so far
Five articles on PainSci cite Lucas 2009: 1. The Complete Guide to Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain 2. The Complete Guide to Low Back Pain 3. Is Diagnosis for Pain Problems Reliable? 4. Trigger Point Doubts 5. Palpatory Pareidolia & Diagnosis by Touch
PainSci commentary on Lucas 2009: ?This page is one of thousands in the PainScience.com bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided wherever possible.
This paper is a survey of the state of the art of trigger point diagnosis as of 2009, which is a confusing mess, unfortunately. It explains that past research has not “reported the reliability of trigger point diagnosis according to the currently proposed criteria.” The authors also explain that “there is no accepted reference standard for the diagnosis of trigger points, and data on the reliability of physical examination for trigger points are conflicting.” Given these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that the conclusion of the study was disappointing: “Physical examination cannot currently be recommended as a reliable test for the diagnosis of trigger points.”
This is essentially the same conclusion as a review the year before by Myburgh et al.
~ Paul Ingraham
original abstract †Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.
BACKGROUND: Trigger points are promoted as an important cause of musculoskeletal pain. There is no accepted reference standard for the diagnosis of trigger points, and data on the reliability of physical examination for trigger points are conflicting.
OBJECTIVES: To systematically review the literature on the reliability of physical examination for the diagnosis of trigger points.
METHODS: MEDLINE, EMBASE, and other sources were searched for articles reporting the reliability of physical examination for trigger points. Included studies were evaluated for their quality and applicability, and reliability estimates were extracted and reported.
RESULTS: Nine studies were eligible for inclusion. None satisfied all quality and applicability criteria. No study specifically reported reliability for the identification of the location of active trigger points in the muscles of symptomatic participants. Reliability estimates varied widely for each diagnostic sign, for each muscle, and across each study. Reliability estimates were generally higher for subjective signs such as tenderness (kappa range, 0.22-1.0) and pain reproduction (kappa range, 0.57-1.00), and lower for objective signs such as the taut band (kappa range, -0.08-0.75) and local twitch response (kappa range, -0.05-0.57).
CONCLUSIONS: No study to date has reported the reliability of trigger point diagnosis according to the currently proposed criteria. On the basis of the limited number of studies available, and significant problems with their design, reporting, statistical integrity, and clinical applicability, physical examination cannot currently be recommended as a reliable test for the diagnosis of trigger points. The reliability of trigger point diagnosis needs to be further investigated with studies of high quality that use current diagnostic criteria in clinically relevant patients.
- “A systematic, critical review of manual palpation for identifying myofascial trigger points: evidence and clinical significance,” Myburgh et al, Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 2008.
- “Interrater Agreement of Manual Palpation for Identification of Myofascial Trigger Points: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Rathbone et al, The Clinical Journal of Pain, 2017.
- “Clinical precision of myofascial trigger point location in the trapezius muscle,” Sciotti et al, Pain, 2001.
- “Interrater reliability in myofascial trigger point examination,” Gerwin et al, Pain, 1997.
- “Travell, Simons and Cargo Cult Science,” Fred Wolfe, FMperplex.com.
- “The fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndromes: a preliminary study of tender points and trigger points in persons with fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome and no disease,” Wolfe et al, Journal of Rheumatology, 1992.
- “Interrater reliability: the kappa statistic,” McHugh, Biochem Med (Zagreb), 2012.
- “The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data,” Landis et al, Biometrics, 1977.
This page is part of the PainScience BIBLIOGRAPHY, which contains plain language summaries of thousands of scientific papers & others sources. It’s like a highly specialized blog. A few highlights:
- Inciting events associated with lumbar disc herniation. Suri 2010 Spine J.
- Prediction of an extruded fragment in lumbar disc patients from clinical presentations. Pople 1994 Spine (Phila Pa 1976).
- Characteristics of patients with low back and leg pain seeking treatment in primary care: baseline results from the ATLAS cohort study. Konstantinou 2015 BMC Musculoskelet Disord.
- Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of universal school-based mindfulness training compared with normal school provision in reducing risk of mental health problems and promoting well-being in adolescence: the MYRIAD cluster randomised controlled trial. Kuyken 2022 Evid Based Ment Health.
- Is there a relationship between throbbing pain and arterial pulsations? Mirza 2012 J Neurosci.