Palpation lies at the heart of much that we do in manual medicine and bodywork in general, and massage in particular. But how accurate and reliable is it?
What we do therapeutically commonly is determined by prior palpation and the meaning we give to what has been palpated.
In other words, we assess and decide what treatment is needed and then apply techniques in order to achieve those ends. If, however, our palpation skills are limited or our interpretation of what it is we are feeling is inaccurate, then the treatment we choose to apply based on such misinformation is likely to fail.
Famous osteopathic physician Viola Fryman said: “Palpation cannot be learned by reading or listening; it can only be learned by palpation.”1 Palpation represents a two-way communication between the examiner and the patient. Decisions as to what to do therapeutically often will be based on a variety of palpation and assessment methods, together with the symptoms and the patient’s responses to these manual (and sometimes observational) evaluation procedures.
In other instances – I am thinking of methods such as neuromuscular technique or many massage techniques – palpation and treatment are synchronous with decisions over how we should respond by varying the degree, duration and directions of forces. These decisions are determined by what is being assessed/felt by the contact hand(s), and how this is interpreted in real time, moment by moment. What is being done therapeutically in such a setting is directly related to what is being palpated and assessed at that moment, rather than having been planned ahead.
- How firmly, softly or variably is pressure being applied?
- How rapidly or slowly? For how long? In what direction(s)?
- In which combinations of compression, distraction, torsion, shearing, vibration, etc.? Locally or generally?
- How do the tissue responses – either local and/or reflexive – to such treatment variables modify the procedures being used as they soften, tense, release, change, mobilize, etc?
- Equally important, how does verbal feedback from the patient/client modify these processes?
For experienced practitioners and therapists, much of the instant decision-making that results in modifications of application of forces (compression/stretch, etc.) happens without due deliberation. The hands do the thinking – intuitively, so to speak. – in much the same way a tightrope walker makes instant, non-cognitive decisions based on the processing of multiple pieces of information.
In other circumstances, active deliberation and thought are required as to what to do next. How accurate such decision-making is will be based on a combination of experience and learned information, as well as being present in the moment and truly in touch with tissues that offer information requiring interpretation.
So, at the heart of palpation is what I termed palpatory literacy many years ago. Do we know how to read the signs and signals the body and its tissues offer us? Nowadays, with the clamour for “evidence-based” methods, a great deal of effort goes into evaluating how reliable and valid (accurate) palpation and assessment-methods are. These can be looked at in several ways. The most common are studies that try to see how reliable an examiner’s findings (and therefore the methods used) are. This is measurement of intra-examiner reliability. The other major focus is on how repeatable findings are when different examiners are involved. This is measuring inter-examiner reliability.
The difference between these is that one (intra-) looks at how competent you are in making judgements about what you palpate, and whether the same findings are repeatable when you apply them to other people or other tissues that display similar characteristics. Do your current findings commonly agree with your previous findings? In this case, there is good intra-examiner reliability.
Inter-examiner evaluation looks at how much agreement there is when others palpate the same tissues. Do they come to the same conclusions you did? In that case, there is good inter-examiner reliability.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that such reliability does not necessarily mean accuracy has been achieved. The interpretation of methods of palpation that can reliably be duplicated and which agree with the palpation findings of someone else, does not in and of itself mean the conclusions deriving from the palpation exercise are accurate. You may both be wrong, depending on the basis for your interpretation of similar palpation findings. For example, you could reliably aim and hit a dartboard every time you threw a dart, and this would reflect your throwing reliability. However, only if you consistently or frequently hit the bull’s-eye would the dart-throwing be categorised as accurate.
So, how can we ensure better intra- and inter-examiner reliability and accuracy? I’ve explored ways to do this in my book Palpation and Assessment Skills, which attempts to lead the reader through multiple graduated exercises that should result in enhanced skills. Assessment and palpation methods need to be standardized, well-taught and regularly assessed for both reliability and validity (accuracy). The acronym STAR is used in osteopathic medicine to describe characteristics that commonly are present and assessable when dysfunction exists:
- S = sensitivity, because dysfunction usually increases sensitivity, soreness and pain.
- T = tissue texture, because dysfunctional tissues usually “feel” different to surrounding or “normal” tissues (spasm, hyper- or hypotonic, “boggy,” fibrous, etc.).
- A = asymmetry, because commonly, the same tissues on the other side of the body are more normal.
- R = range of motion, because tissues that are dysfunctional commonly will display a decreased (sometimes increased) range, whether there is a joint, soft tissues or skin overlying the dysfunctional tissues.
Some of these elements are measurable and some not. In other words, some are subjective (tissue texture, for example) and some are objective (range of motion, for example). One thing is certain: The more you practice palpation methods, the more sensitive and reliable your methods should become. What your palpation and assessment means depends on the degree of knowledge you have acquired and your particular belief system. For example, when palpating the radial pulse, your belief system might cause you to interpret findings as relating to heart rate, whereas someone else who appears to be performing precisely the same palpation might be evaluating qi levels in different meridian systems. I will return to the vast topic of palpation in a future issue.
- Frymann V. Palpation – Its Study in the Workshop. In: Academy of Applied Osteopathy Yearbook. Newark, Ohio: Academy of Applied Osteopathy, 1963, pp. 16-30.