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Physical examination versus ultrasonography for detection of ulnar nerve subluxation in professional baseball pitchers

Looney AM, Day HK, Reddy MP, Paul RW, Nazarian LN, Cohen SB

Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine 2023 Nov;11(11):23259671231208234

primary study

BACKGROUND: Despite the importance of accurately detecting ulnar nerve subluxation in vulnerable athletes, few studies have compared the performance of physical examination and ultrasound in this population. Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this study was to compare the diagnostic validity of physical examination versus ultrasound in detecting ulnar nerve subluxation at the cubital tunnel of the elbow in professional baseball pitchers. It was hypothesized that ultrasound would more sensitively detect ulnar nerve subluxation. Study Design: Cohort study (diagnosis); Level of evidence, 2. METHODS: Physical and sonographic examinations for ulnar nerve subluxation were performed on 186 elbows of 95 consecutive male professional baseball pitchers (age, 17-30 years) as a routine part of their spring training assessments. Provocative maneuvers consisting of the Tinel and elbow flexion-compression tests were evaluated over the cubital tunnel. The validity of physical examination for detecting ulnar nerve subluxation at the elbow was determined using ultrasonographic examination for comparison. RESULTS: Ulnar nerve subluxation was detected by physical examination in 58 (31.2%) elbows and by ultrasonography in 61 (32.8%) elbows. Of the 58 elbows with positive physical examination, 47 were positive on ultrasound. Using a positive ultrasound as a reference, the accuracy of the physical examination was 86.6%, with 77% sensitivity and 91.2% specificity. The positive and negative predictive values of physical examination were 81% and 89.1%, respectively. There was no relationship between nerve instability and positive provocative tests overall, in dominant versus nondominant arms, or in right versus left arms (p > 0.05 for all). CONCLUSION: Physical examination had moderate sensitivity and high specificity for detecting ulnar nerve subluxation at the cubital tunnel of the elbow when compared with ultrasound. These findings suggest that when detecting the presence of a subluxating ulnar nerve is most important, it may be advisable to obtain an ultrasound evaluation instead of relying on a physical examination; however, physical examination alone may be appropriate for ruling out subluxation.

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