Increased abdominal pain experienced by people when riding in a car which traverses speed bumps has been found to be a symptom of appendicitis.

As usual, several media outlets reported this topic uncritically. Medpage Today even had a video explanation of the results by an internist who suggested that this finding might one day lead to fewer CT scans being done.

I don’t think so.

Researchers from the UK prospectively questioned 101 patients with possible appendicitis, 68 of whom had ridden over speed bumps on the way to the hospital. Four were excluded because of missing data.

Increased speed bump-related pain was experienced by 54 patients, and 33 of them had appendicitis. Ten patients had no speed bump-related pain with only 1 having appendicitis.

A confirmed diagnosis of appendicitis was found in 34 patients, 33 of whom had worsened pain over speed bumps, sensitivity = 97% (85% to 100%) and specificity = 30% (15% to 49%). Positive predictive value = 61% (47% to 74%); and negative predictive value = 90% (56% to 100%). The likelihood ratios (LRs) were 1.4 (1.1 to 1.8) for a positive test result and 0.1 (0.0 to 0.7) for a negative result.

What does a likelihood ratio mean?

For a positive LR of 1.4: The following nomogram illustrates that if after you assess a patient with abdominal pain, you think he has a 90% chance of having appendicitis then a positive speed bump test would increase his odds of having appendicitis from 90% to about 92%. The green line starts at 90% and crosses the middle line at 1.4.

 

For a negative LR of 0.1: Suppose the patient went over a speed bump and said he had no pain but based on other signs and symptoms, you still think he has a 90% chance of having appendicitis. The red line shows that a negative LR of 0.1 would give you a 48% chance that the patient actually has appendicitis. That’s not enough to convince you not to operate.

You can see that the speed bump test adds very little to the diagnostic workup for appendicitis. As the MedPage video stated, it is well-known that pain with motion is a symptom that is often found in patients with peritonitis. I always have asked questions related to pain during the car ride to the hospital or when riding the gurney ride to and from CT.

Further proof of the lack of utility of the test is found in the paper itself, published in the British Medical Journal. Full text here.

In the introduction the paper states that the rate of negative appendectomy "ranges from 5% to 42%, and this can be associated with considerable morbidity.”

This is very old data. The standard of care in this part of the 21st century is that the negative rate should be well below 10%. My own rate of negative appendectomy for my last 200 cases is 4.5%.

The negative appendectomy rate for the speed bump study was not mentioned in any of the media reports nor is it in the abstract. But the full text of the paper reveals that the negative appendectomy rate in this study was 20%.

I don’t see this test replacing CT scanning any time soon.

Once again to get the facts, you have to read the whole paper, not just the abstract or the press release.

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 800 page views per day, and he has over 5100 followers on Twitter.