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Original Investigation
March 27, 2000

The Accuracy of Physical Examination to Detect Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Medicine and Center for Chronic Disease Outcomes Research, Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Arch Intern Med. 2000;160(6):833-836. doi:10.1001/archinte.160.6.833

Background  Abdominal palpation during physical examination is an important means of detecting abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), but limited information is available on its accuracy.

Methods  Two hundred subjects (aged 51-88 years), 99 with and 101 without AAA as determined by previous ultrasound, each underwent physical examination of the abdomen by 2 internists who were blinded to each other's findings and to the ultrasound diagnosis.

Results  The overall accuracy of abdominal palpation for detecting AAA was as follows: sensitivity, 68% (95% confidence interval [CI], 60%-76%); specificity, 75% (95% CI, 68%-82%); positive likelihood ratio, 2.7 (95% CI, 2.0-3.6); negative likelihood ratio 0.43 (95% CI, 0.33-0.56). Interobserver pair agreement for AAA vs no AAA between the first and second examinations was 77% (κ = 0.53). Sensitivity increased with AAA diameter, from 61% for AAAs of 3.0 to 3.9 cm, to 69% for AAAs of 4.0 to 4.9 cm, 72% for AAAs of 4.0 cm or larger, and 82% for AAAs of 5.0 cm or larger. Sensitivity in subjects with an abdominal girth less than 100 cm (40-in waistline) was 91% vs 53% for girth of 100 cm or greater (P<.001). When girth was 100 cm or greater and the aorta was palpable, sensitivity was 82%. When girth was less than 100 cm and the AAA was 5.0 cm or larger, sensitivity was 100% (12 examinations). Factors independently associated with correct examination findings included AAA diameter (odds ratio [OR], 1.95 per centimeter increase; 95% CI, 1.06-3.58); abdominal girth (OR, 0.90 per centimeter increase; 95% CI, 0.87-0.94); and the examiner's assessment that the abdomen was not tight (OR, 2.68; 95% CI, 1.17-6.13).

Conclusions  Abdominal palpation has only moderate overall sensitivity for detecting AAA, but appears to be highly sensitive for diagnosis of AAAs large enough to warrant elective intervention in patients who do not have a large girth. Abdominal palpation has good sensitivity even in patients with a large girth if the aorta is palpable.