The majority of the provocative tests described for physical examination of the neck and cervical spine relate to identification of radiculopathy, spinal cord, or brachial plexus pathology. These tests are often performed routinely by many providers with variable methods and interpreted in a variety of ways. Several commonly performed provocative tests include Spurling’s Neck Compression Test, Shoulder Abduction (Relief) Test, Neck Distraction Test, L’hermitte’s Sign, Hoffmann’s Sign and Adson’s Test.
This review describes some specialized provocative tests with comprehensive literature review. The goal of this review is to develop standardization in the performance and clinical use of these tests. Each of the tests described in this manuscript apparently originated from the anecdotal observations of experienced, well respected clinicians. However, only few studies have been performed addressing the interexaminer reliability or validity of these tests. The existing literature appears to indicate high specificity, low sensitivity, and good to fair interexaminer reliability for Spurling’s Neck Compression Test, the Neck Distraction Test, and The Shoulder Abduction (Relief) Test when performed as described. For Hoffman’s Sign, the existing literature does not address interexaminer reliability but appears to indicate fair sensitivity and fair to good specificity. For L’hermitte’s Sign and Adson’s Test, not even tentative statements can be made with regard to interexaminer reliability, sensitivity, and specificity, based on the existing literature.
It is concluded that more research is indicated to understand the clinical utility of all the provocative tests employed in the physical examination of the neck and cervical spine.
Keywords: Provocative tests, cervical spine, Spurling’s Neck Compression Test, Shoulder Abduction (Relief) Test, Neck Distraction Test, L’hermitte’s Sign, Hoffmann’s Sign, Adson’s Test, sensitivity, specificity