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Can physical assessment techniques aid diagnosis in people with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis? A diagnostic accuracy study

13 Nov 2017


To assess five physical signs to see whether they can assist in the screening of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) and potentially lead to quicker treatment.


This was a diagnostic accuracy study with inter-rater agreement assessment. Participants recruited from two National Health Service hospitals, local CFS/ME support groups and the community were examined by three practitioners on the same day in a randomised order. Two allied health professionals (AHPs) performed independent examinations of physical signs including: postural/mechanical disturbances of the thoracic spine, breast varicosities, tender Perrin’s point, tender coeliac plexus and dampened cranial flow. A physician conducted a standard clinical neurological and rheumatological assessment while looking for patterns of illness behaviour. Each examination lasted approximately 20 min.


Ninety-four participants were assessed, 52 patients with CFS/ME and 42 non-CFS/ME controls, aged 18–60. Cohen’s kappa revealed that agreement between the AHPs was substantial for presence of the tender coeliac plexus (=0.65, p<0.001) and moderate for postural/mechanical disturbance of the thoracic spine (=0.57, p<0.001) and Perrin’s point (=0.56, p<0.001). A McNemar’s test found no statistically significant bias in the diagnosis by the experienced AHP relative to actual diagnosis (p=1.0) and a marginally non-significant bias by the newly trained AHP (p=0.052). There was, however, a significant bias in the diagnosis made by the physician relative to actual diagnosis (p<0.001), indicating poor diagnostic utility of the clinical neurological and rheumatological assessment.


Using the physical signs appears to improve the accuracy of identifying people with CFS/ME and shows agreement with current diagnostic techniques. However, the present study concludes that only two of these may be needed. Examining for physical signs is both quick and simple for the AHP and may be used as an efficient screening tool for CFS/ME. This is a small single-centre study, and therefore, further validation in other centres and larger populations is needed.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in BMJ Open