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OBJECTIVE: The aim of this systematic review was to determine the validity and inter- and intra-observer reliability of the assessment of knee joint effusion in osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. METHODS: MEDLINE, Web of Knowledge, CINAHL, EMBASE, and AMED were searched from their inception to February 2015. Articles were included according to a priori defined criteria: samples containing participants with knee OA; prospective evaluation of clinical tests and assessments of knee effusion that included reliability, sensitivity, and specificity of these tests. RESULTS: A total of 10 publications were reviewed. Eight of these considered reliability and four on validity of clinical assessments against ultrasound effusion. It was not possible to undertake a meta-analysis of reliability or validity because of differences in study designs and the clinical tests. Intra-observer kappa agreement for visible swelling ranged from 0.37 (suprapatellar) to 1.0 (prepatellar); for bulge sign 0.47 and balloon sign 0.37. Inter-observer kappa agreement for visible swelling ranged from -0.02 (prepatellar) to 0.65 (infrapatellar), the balloon sign -0.11 to 0.82, patellar tap -0.02 to 0.75 and bulge sign kappa -0.04 to 0.14 or reliability coefficient 0.97. Reliability and diagnostic accuracy tended to be better in experienced observers. Very few data looked at performance of individual clinical tests with sensitivity ranging 18.2-85.7% and specificity 35.3-93.3%, both higher with larger effusions. CONCLUSION: The majority of unstandardized clinical tests to assess joint effusion in knee OA had relatively low intra- and inter-observer reliability. There is some evidence experience improved reliability and diagnostic accuracy of tests. Currently there is insufficient evidence to recommend any particular test in clinical practice.

Original publication




Journal article


Semin arthritis rheum

Publication Date





556 - 563


Clinical, Effusion, Knee, Osteoarthritis, Reliability, Sensitivity, Specificity, Tests, Edema, Female, Humans, Knee Joint, Male, Osteoarthritis, Knee, Physical Examination, Reproducibility of Results, Sensitivity and Specificity, Ultrasonography