A careful and thorough physical examination is a critical component of the spinal impairment evaluation. Two methods have been used for this evaluation, the Diagnosis-related estimates (DRE) method and the Range of Motion (ROM) method, but the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (AMA Guides), Fifth Edition, states that “the DRE method is the principal methodology used to evaluate an individual who has had a distinct injury.” The DRE rating is based on objective findings at the time of evaluation and includes the following clinical findings: muscle spasm; muscle guarding; asymmetric spinal motion (previously called dysmetria); nonverifiable radicular pain; reflexes, neurological changes such as weakness or loss of sensation, atrophy, radiculopathy, and electrodiagnostic changes; alteration of motion segment integrity; cauda equina–like syndrome; and urodynamic tests. This article examines the definitions of the findings and discusses their use in the DRE method. For example, the AMA Guides, Fifth Edition, defines muscle spasm as a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle or group of muscles, and muscle spasm must be present at the time of a DRE-based evaluation; in the Fourth Edition, examiners used only a history of spasm. The AMA Guides, Fifth Edition also has different parameters, compared with the Fourth Edition, for determining atrophy.

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