Not as accurate as we might like! In fact, no single clinical finding has been found to carry sufficient weight in ruling in or excluding cholecystitis and Murphy’s sign (inability to take a deep breath due to pain upon palpation of the right upper quadrant) is no exception. 1
A meta-analysis of patients with Murphy’s sign reported a sensitivity of 65% and a specificity of 87% (positive LR 2.8, negative LR 0.4, with 95% C.I. including 1.0 in both). 1,2 However, among the elderly (mean age 79 y), the sensitivity may be a slow as 48% 2 and in patients with gangrenous cholecystitis as low as 33%.3
In contrast, Murphy’ s sign elicited at the time of ultrasound of the gallbladder (ie,“sonographic Murphy’s) is generally thought to very sensitive (>90%) for acute cholecystitis;3,4 1 study reported a sensitivity of 63%, however (specificity 94%).5 Remember that altered mental status may also mask sonographic Murphy’s sign.
Indirect fist percussion of the liver has been suggested by some authors as a more sensitive alternative to Murphy’s sign (100% vs 80%) in a small series of patients with cholecystitis.2
Bonus pearl: Did you know that another technique originally described by the famed American surgeon, John Murphy, to diagnose acute cholecystitis consisted of the “hammer stroke maneuver” in which percussion of the right midsubcostal region with the bent middle finger of the left hand was performed using the right hand to strike the dorsum of the left hand with hammer-like blows? 6
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- Trowbridge RL, Rutkowski NK, Shojania KG. Does this patient have acute cholecystitis. JAMA 2003;289:80-86. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/195707
- Ueda T, Ishida E. Indirect fist percussion of the liver is a more sensitive technique for detecting hepatobiliary infections than Murphy’s sign. Current Gerontol Geriat Res, Volume 2015, Article ID 431638. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/cggr/2015/431638/
- Simeone JF, Brink JA, Mueller PR, et al. The sonographic diagnosis of acute gangrenous cholecystitis. The importance of the Murphy sign. AJR 1989;152:289-90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2643262
- O’Connor OJ, Maher MM. Imaging of cholecystitis. AJR 2011;196:W36774. https://www.ajronline.org/doi/full/10.2214/AJR.10.4340
- Rallis PW, Lapin SA, Quinn MF, et al. Prospective evaluation of the sonographic Murphy sign in suspected acute cholecystitis. J Clin Ultrasound 1982;10:113-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6804512
- Salati SA, al Kadi A. Murphy’s sign of cholecystitis-a brief revisit. Journal of Signs and Symptoms 2012;1:53-6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230820198_Murphy’s_sign_of_cholecystitis-_a_brief_revisit