Diagnostic imaging and differential diagnosis in 2 case reports

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy








Anterolisthesis; Disc herniation; Neurosurgery; Stress fracture


Study Design: Retrospective resident's case reports. Background: In today's healthcare setting, it is important for physical therapists to recognize when diagnostic imaging is necessary-as well as know how to interpret the results of these tests-to assist in the clinical decision-making process. Two cases are presented that illustrate how a physical therapist, credentinled to request and review diagnostic imaging, effectively and efficiently utilized multiple forms of diagnostic imaging to assist in his differential diagnosis and clinical decision making. Diagnosis: The first case report describes the differential diagnostic process for a 33-year-old active duty military paratrooper who had sustained trauma to his neck. His history was consistent with a C6 radiculopathy, which was confirmed by a neurological screening examination. Radiographs requested by the physical therapist revealed an anterolithesis of C5 on C6, with a possible fracture. An orthopedic surgeon was consulted and further diagnostic testing via magnetic resonance imaging revealed a large disc herniation at C5-6, with spinal cord compression, as well as a C5 vertebral body fracture with nearly perched facets at C5 on C6. The patient was subsequently referred to a neurosurgeon and underwent an emergency C5-6 fusion that afternoon. The second case report describes the differential diagnosis of a 20-year-old active-duty soldier referred for rehabilitation with a diagnosis of a distal fibula stress fracture. Previous treatment by the referring provider included 3 months of rest and anti-inflammatory medications. Physical examination of the patient revealed a marked decrease in ankle inversion with a firm end feel. This was not consistent with the diagnosis established by the referring provider. Subsequent radiographs requested by the physical therapist and a computed tomography scan requested by a podiatrist revealed synostosis of the middle facet of the talocalcaneal joint with an apparent fracture line. The patient subsequently underwent a subtalar arthrodesis. Discussion: In these cases the physical therapist requested imaging needed for appropriate management, despite the patient having previously seen a primary care provider. In both examples, the physical therapist successfully identified abnormalities prior to a radiologist or other physician reviewing the results. This avoided delay in definitive management of the patients' problems. It is imperative that physical therapists understand when diagnostic imaging is necessary to assist in the differential diagnosis of patients. Likewise, it is important for physical therapists to be competent in interpreting the results of these tests. When not in a direct access physical therapy environment, a physical therapist should understand when diagnostic imaging tests are indicated. This facilitates working with the entire health care team to acquire necessary tests in an appropriate timeframe.

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