Patient professional reference
Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Shoulder examination is a practical skill which requires background knowledge of anatomy, of normal shoulder function and of abnormalities affecting the shoulder. The likely diagnosis will have been derived from the history. The necessary skills can be developed by examining colleagues or patients. The background knowledge can be learned with the help of pictures and video clips.
View from the rear, with the patient standing straight. Look for lateral symmetry, swelling, position of scapula and signs of muscle wasting.
Palpate all over the shoulder girdle, acromioclavicular joint, deltoid and supraspinatus muscles and scapular borders feeling for pain and tenderness, crepitus, effusions, deformities and abnormal muscle development.
Range of movement
Perform the following with the patient seated:
- External rotation - with the patient's elbow at right angles and held into side, turn the arm outwards as far as possible (expected 70°).
- Internal rotation - with the patient's elbow held into side, raise the arm as far as possible up the patient's back (expected level T5).
- Forward flexion - start with the patient's arm at their side and lift the arm forwards and upwards as far as possible (expected 150-170°).
- Extension - with the arm by the patient's side, lift the arm backwards as far as possible (expected 40°).
- Abduction - with the arm at the patient's side, lift the arm away from the body as far as possible, continuing past the horizontal by allowing the shoulder to rotate externally, bringing the hand behind the head (expected 160-180°).
- Adduction - draw the patient's arm across the anterior chest wall as far as possible (expected 30-40°).
Signs in individual joint problems
- Acromioclavicular joint - ask the patient to place their hand on their opposite shoulder. If gentle pressure on the joint elicits pain, this is indicative of acromioclavicular joint inflammation (cross-arm horizontal adduction test).
- Glenohumeral joint - with the patient lying on their back and their arm at right angles over the edge of the couch, gently push their wrist downwards. The patient will complain if the joint is unstable (apprehension test). With the patient lying on their back and the scapula stable, support their elbow and gently move the humeral head up and down in the glenoid fossa, by pressing anteriorly and posteriorly on the upper humerus, to assess laxity.
- Impingement tests - turn the patient's arm so that the thumb points downwards and lift their arm outwards and upwards. With the patient standing and their arm abducted at right angles, support the elbow and rotate the forearm internally. In both tests, pain on movement indicates impingement of the rotator cuff.
- Rotator cuffs - with the patient seated and elbows tucked into their sides, ask the patient to push both outwards and inwards, against resistance, in order to assess strength.
- Supraspinatus - ask the patient to hold both arms stretched out straight and level with the shoulders and thumbs pointed downwards. Assess strength by asking the patient to push the forearms both upwards and downwards against resistance.
Further reading and references
Shoulder Examination - OSCE Guide; Geeky Medics
Jain NB, Wilcox RB 3rd, Katz JN, et al; Clinical examination of the rotator cuff. PM R. 2013 Jan5(1):45-56. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2012.08.019.
Hegedus EJ, Goode AP, Cook CE, et al; Which physical examination tests provide clinicians with the most value when examining the shoulder? Update of a systematic review with meta-analysis of individual tests. Br J Sports Med. 2012 Nov46(14):964-78. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091066. Epub 2012 Jul 7.
Dinnes J, Loveman E, McIntyre L, et al; The effectiveness of diagnostic tests for the assessment of shoulder pain due to soft tissue disorders: a systematic review. Health Technol Assess. 20037(29):iii, 1-166.
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