1 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service Boston, MA, USA, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

2 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service, Boston, MA, USA, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

3 Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service, Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA


Background: Nonspecific symptoms are common in all areas of medicine. Patients and caregivers can be frustrated when an illness cannot be reduced to a discrete pathophysiological process that corresponds with the symptoms. We therefore asked the following questions: 1) Which demographic factors and psychological comorbidities are associated with change from an initial diagnosis of nonspecific arm pain to eventual identification of discrete pathophysiology that corresponds with symptoms? 2) What is the percentage of patients eventually diagnosed with discrete pathophysiology, what are those pathologies, and do they account for the symptoms?

We evaluated 634 patients with an isolated diagnosis of nonspecific upper extremity pain to see if discrete pathophysiology was diagnosed on subsequent visits to the same hand surgeon, a different hand surgeon, or any physician within our health system for the same pain.

There were too few patients with discrete pathophysiology at follow-up to address the primary study question. Definite discrete pathophysiology that corresponded with the symptoms was identified in subsequent evaluations by the index surgeon in one patient (0.16% of all patients) and cured with surgery (nodular fasciitis). Subsequent doctors identified possible discrete pathophysiology in one patient and speculative pathophysiology in four patients and the index surgeon identified possible discrete pathophysiology in four patients, but the five discrete diagnoses accounted for only a fraction of the symptoms.

Nonspecific diagnoses are not harmful. Prospective randomized research is merited to determine if nonspecific, descriptive diagnoses are better for patients than specific diagnoses that imply pathophysiology in the absence of discrete verifiable pathophysiology.


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