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The Art of the Painful Arc

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Orthopedic tests don’t need to be complicated. While there is no absolutes, small shifts in post-test probability can make a big difference. When combined with a little logic, a simple observation can go a long way in your clinical decision making.

Active range of motion is a standard screen routinely performed for shoulder pain. A painful arc is determined when the patient experiences shoulder pain in a range of 60-120 degrees of shoulder abduction.

A meta-analysis performed by Hegedus in 2012 demonstrated that a painful arc was neither sensitive nor specific. So what now? If this test cannot rule in or rule out pathology then why should we care? “Success is in the details”. When you look at the fine print and crunch the numbers, a painful arc can shift the post test probability that the patient in front of you is 15% more likely to have a shoulder impingement/rotator cuff tendinopathy as the cause of their pain.

If your patient is 60 years old, they are already 25% more likely to have rotator cuff tendinopathy when they complain of shoulder pain. If that same patient demonstrates a painful arc they are now 40% more likely to have a rotator cuff tendinopathy present (25% + 15% = 40%). Why is this significant? Herein lies the value. This 40% shift in probability is given to us without any additional subjective or objective information about this patient!

Now let’s add some logic thanks to the work of James Cyriax and take the clinical application of a painful arc to another level. While not necessarily validated by clinical trials, we can apply some clinical anatomy to make this more interesting.

Clinical pearls & correlations to the supraspinatus tendon:

- A painful arc tells you that the lesion has to be located at a pinchable site, therefore it lies at the subacromial space. If the patient has a painful arc and experiences pain with resisted shoulder abduction, the problem lies at the