Spinal Motion Palpation: A Review of Reliability Studies

Peter A. Huijbregts, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT

Abstract: Spinal motion palpation is a diagnostic tool used by a number of professions. Research studies available on the reliability of motion palpation studies have statistical and methodological flaws affecting their statistical conclusion validity, external validity, and construct validity. Further research is necessary to determine the reliability of motion palpation techniques bearing in mind these statistical and methodological flaws.

Key Words: Spinal Motion Palpation, Reliability, Research Validity

Spinal motion palpation is a diagnostic tool used by physical therapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, and medical doctors1. Table 1 lists the different types of spinal motion palpation1,2. Four assumptions form the rationale for the use of motion palpation as a diagnostic tool3-5:

  1. Spinal segmental motion abnormalities cause or contribute to functional limitation and disability.
  2. Motion palpation is a reliable indicator of these motion abnormalities.
  3. Motion palpation is a valid indicator of these abnormalities.
  4. Motion palpation is sensitive to clinically important changes in these motion abnormalities.

The goal of this article is to provide the clinician with a critical analysis of the research into the intra- and interrater reliability of spinal motion palpation. Intrarater reliability refers to the stability of measurements taken by one rater across two or more trials; interrater reliability is concerned with the level of agreement between findings of two or more raters measuring the same group of subjects6.

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