Patient Misperception of Musculoskeletal Disease Onset

Often when I ask patients about the reason for their visit, I inquire about specific events. For example, “What were you doing when you hurt your knee?” For acute injuries, they can usually describe the exact moment they tore their ACL or dislocated their shoulder. In an adolescent sports clinic, where I spend much of my time, this acute scenario is the norm, but what about patient conversations regarding gradual-onset disease processes such as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) or osteoarthritis? These pathologies develop over many years, but patients with such conditions may fixate on when their disease became symptomatic–and may therefore mistakenly attribute a chronic condition to an acute injury.

Lemmers et al. investigate this complex body-mind concept in the December 16, 2020 issue of The Journal. The authors sought to analyze factors associated with the misperception of disease onset due to the recent experience of symptoms in 121 adult patients with CTS, cubital tunnel syndrome, upper-extremity osteoarthritis, or rotator cuff tendinosis. The patients filled out questionnaires for depression, anxiety, pain catastrophizing, self-efficacy, and upper-extremity physical function, in addition to supplying basic demographic information.

Based on the responses, most patients understood that their problem was not new but was instead “age-appropriate.” However, 18% of patients perceived the sudden onset of symptoms as a “new” disease, and 24% felt the problem was related to at least 1 injury or event. After multivariable analysis, Lemmers et al. found that Hispanic ethnicity and publicly funded or no insurance were independently associated with the perception that an event/injury caused the problem. The authors candidly admit that this area needs much more research, but they surmise that this latter finding could be related to lower health literacy.

This work highlights that we need to make sure our patients understand exactly what is happening with their musculoskeletal system. Because misperception of a disease’s cause and onset could affect patient decision-making, it is incumbent upon us as surgeons to be vigilant for possible misconceptions during our shared decision-making discussions with patients. As Lemmers et al. conclude, “Patients who do not understand what is happening to their body might choose different health strategies than they would if their understanding were accurate.”

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

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