Many times when a patient presents for care, they have a specific problem they want to address. Most chiropractors I know will often take a "whole-person" approach and also address other less-symptomatic findings in other parts of the body (such as adjusting an ankle for a lower back problem or working with the neck to treat carpal tunnel symptoms).
Don't Forget to Observe
In that mindset, it falls on the practitioner to be vigilant when evaluating the patient. Palpation, goading and orthopedic testing are all important elements of the exam – but don't forget to keep your eyes open and just observe the patient:
- Postural alignment – are the shoulders and hips level? Which side is higher? Is one rotated more forward?
- Head tilt – is the head and neck erect, tilted or in forward carriage?
- Gait – watch the patient walk (at least into the treatment room, if you don't get the chance to observe them enter the office). Is there a limp? Altered gait? Foot drop or leg swing?
When the patient is on the examination table, observe the following for potential dysfunction / issues:
- Postural alignment – shoulder leveling, forward posture, shoulders rotated forward? Do they lean to one side? Do they have problems sitting due to back pain?
- Head tilt – again, observe how they carry their head.
- With the patient prone – evaluate for leg length, hip balance and scapular rotation.
Take the Time to Do a General Inspection
In many cases this has become a lost component of examination, but take the time to just "look over" your patient. On a number of occasions, patients have denied any surgical history – until I asked them, for example, about that vertical scar over their lower lumbars. "Oh yeah, I had a lumbar discectomy, but I forgot about that." Patients are not always the most reliable historians, so it doesn't hurt to take a few seconds to get a general impression.
I should also note here that observation is a key component to assessing malingering in a patient – when their complaints do not correlate with their objective behaviors or actions. When dealing with the feigning or malingering patient, careful observation and accurate documentation are critical.
Another gold nugget tucked away in Hoppenfeld's text is looking at the fingers and nails. He notes that the general condition and color of the fingernails can sometimes indicate serious pathologic problems and should not be overlooked during inspection. Normal nails are pink in color and should be in good condition, neither pitted nor split. The lunula (the little crescent-shaped moon at the nail base) should be white.
- Pale or whitish nail beds can be a sign of anemia or circulatory problems.
- If the nails appear concave or "dug-out," this can indicate a severe fungal infection.
- If the nails appear clubbed – domed, and larger than normal – this can indicate hypertrophy of the underlying soft tissues, but may also indicate respiratory or congenital heart problems.
There is much that can be learned about a patient from simple observation. For more information, there are a number of texts that focus entirely on body assessment through observation. [See the resource list at the end of this article.] The body is a wonderful dynamic; the more we can observe and interpret, the more accurate and focused we can provide care. As always, remember to completely and clearly document your findings, correlate with the patient's case history, and logically outline your care plan. These extra notes help document the severity of the patient's complaints and can then show the progressive response to care. This extra documentation can also help make the difference if you must justify your diagnosis to an insurer or third party. Take the extra few seconds to add this practice into your exam routine – it will serve you well.
- Evans RC. Illustrated Essentials in Orthopedic Physical Assessment. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1994.
- Hoppenfeld S. Physical Examination of the Spine and Extremities. San Mateo, CA: Appleton & Lange, 1976.
- Kaptchuk TJ. The Web That Has No Weaver. Chicago, IL: Congdon & Weed, Inc., 1983.
- Kushi M. How to See Your Health: Book of Oriental Diagnosis. New York, NY: Japan Publications, Inc., 1980.
- Lee M. Insights of a Senior Acupuncturist. Boulder, Co: Blue Poppy Press, Inc., 1992.
- Legge D. Close to the Bone – The Treatment of Musculoskeletal Disorders With Acupuncture and Other Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2nd Edition. Woy Woy, Australia: Sydney College Press, 1997.
- Maciocia G. Tongue Diagnosis in Chinese Medicine. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, Inc., 1995.
- Norris C. The Secret Power Within. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company, 1996.
- O'Connor J, Bensky D. Acupuncture, a Comprehensive Text. Shanghai College of Traditional Medicine. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, Inc., 1981.
- Ohashi W. Reading the Body. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1991.
Click here for more information about Douglas R. Briggs, DC, Dipl. Ac. (IAMA), DAAPM, EMT.