Continuing Education Activity
This Romberg test illustrates a diagnostic, non-technical, physical test that identifies a specific neurologic impairment. The purpose of this evaluation, administered by any trained individual, is to identify a particular impairment in patients with specific proprioception difficulties for purposes of intervention and improving patient outcomes. This activity covers the proper execution and interpretation of the Romberg test as a diagnostic tool.
- Outline the types of conditions that would lead a practitioner to perform the Romberg test.
- Describe the process to perform the Romberg test.
- Review the potential results of the Romberg test and their clinical significance.
- Summarize how interprofessional discussion can incorporate the results from the Romberg test may lead to a better understanding of the etiology of the patient's proprioception difficulties and may lead to developing a more narrowed strategy for improving care coordination and the patient's overall outcome.
The Romberg's sign or Romberg's test is a phenomenon named by 19th-century European neurologist, Mortiz Romberg. Initially, this sign was tethered specifically with tertiary syphilis patients who exhibited neurologic signs of late-stage disease referred to as locomotor ataxia, or tabes dorsalis.
When examining a patient's neurological effects from sequelae involving late-stage syphilis, the Romberg sign became a precise test to determine the integrity of the dorsal column pathway of the brain and spinal cord, which controls proprioception. Proprioception is the sense of awareness of the position and movement of the body. Romberg described this sign as a severe postural impairment in a darkroom setting or with eyes closed of patients who had severe damage to the posterior dorsal columns of the spinal cord. Used as a precise clinical tool, the Romberg test is positive if a patient is unable to maintain an upright stance with vision eliminated or in the darkness.
Often the Romberg test can be confused as a sign of cerebellar disease, but instead, this test demonstrates the effects of posterior column disease. The ability to gage true proprioception status can be confounded by the vestibular and vision somatosensory system, which may compensate with vestibular function and vision. The Romberg sign removes the visual and vestibular components that contribute to maintaining balance, and can thus identify specifically a proprioception-related neurologic disease.
Anatomy and Physiology
The dorsal column is a three order neuronal pathway that functions as a method of signal transmission throughout the spinal cord to the brainstem. This pathway specifically controls conscious appreciation of vibration, fine touch, 2-point discrimination, and proprioception. Specifically, in cases of neurosyphilis, or tabes dorsalis, there is demyelination of the axonal fibers of the posterior column or dorsal pathway of the spinal cord. This demyelination leads to severe sensory deficits of the pathway, including position sense or proprioception.
Anatomically, the cerebellum is also involved in truncal and extremity balance and coordination. It is inferior to the occipital lobe; it contains two lateral hemispheres lesions and one medial vermis. The cerebellum is associated with the movement of the body and is part of the human brain, which allows the body to make voluntary and coordinated movements and balance.
Although the cerebellum is also involved with coordination, Romberg's test detects the integrity of the posterior dorsal columns and proprioception, the body's awareness of its own movement and position in space. It is important to understand that a negative Romberg test does not confirm cerebellar dysfunction, but the clinician may rule in the etiology of ataxia due to cerebellar damage. It is crucial to note that both the dorsal column and cerebellar damage may both result in ataxia.
Physiology and Disease States Affecting Proprioception
Sensorimotor integration of the body is dually controlled by cerebellar input and the posterior column medial lemniscus tracts. The dorsal columns carry proprioception sense (sense of position and joint sense). Important sensory inputs to maintain balance include three peripheral modalities: vision, the vestibular apparatus, and proprioception.
Another disease state that involves the dorsal column and proprioception disruptive behavior is the late complication of vitamin B12 deficiency, termed subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord (SCD). This condition is an example of the degeneration of the posterior column pathway due to the disrupted formation of myelin and, thus, nerve transmission through saltatory conduction.
Due to the demyelination, the nerve impulse conduction is disrupted and result in clinical proprioceptive impairment. In addition to the late sequelae of Vitamin B12 deficiency, a clinical state involving the vasculature of the spinal cord can also result in a clinical manifestation such as ataxia and proprioceptive deficit. Posterior cord syndrome is a clinical disease state result from posterior spinal artery infarction. This sequel can involve impairment of vibration sense, proprioception, and loss of reflexes below the lesion with sparing of pain and temperature sensation.
Lastly, in a hemisection of the spinal cord, known as Brown-Sequard syndrome, the posterior column pathway of the spinal cord is usually affected. Most cases of Brown-Sequard syndrome are related to trauma. The classic clinical picture involves ipsilateral hemiparesis, loss of vibration and proprioception, and contralateral loss of pain and temperature.
These disease states mentioned above may all result in ataxia as well as many other physical manifestations. To rule out certain disease states, such as Brown-Sequard syndrome, as the etiology for a proprioceptive deficit, taking a thorough past medical history, including trauma history, by the evaluator is crucial for early goal-directed care.
The Romberg maneuver is a commonly performed test during the neurological exam. It is a valuable clinical sign to evaluate the integrity of the dorsal columns of the spinal cord and is particularly useful in patients with ataxia or severe incoordination.
Although ataxia may develop gradually and insidiously, the screening test is indicated when the patient admits a deficit inability to move around in the dark or even maintain balance when washing his/her face. In disease states with severe proprioceptive impairment, the patient may even exhibit a noticeable degree of impairment when standing with the feet together. When the patient may display clinical signs or evidence of inability to maintain postural station, or the power to stand steady with eyes open or shut, the diagnostic Romberg test and test of postural sway may be indicated.
The Romberg test is quite useful in a broad range of neurologic disease states in assessing and confirming various neurological conditions including but not limited to Parkinson disease (causes postural instability and a shuffling gait), Friedreich ataxia (causes staggering gait and frequent falls), Vitamin B12 deficiency (causes ataxia gait), Tertiary syphilis (causes sensory ataxia; impaired proprioception), Normal pressure hydrocephalus in the elderly (truncal ataxia with falls), and Wernicke's syndrome (associated with chronic alcoholism which causes limb ataxia), and Ménière's disease.
The current literature demonstrates safety in performing the test under the supervision of the patient and following the correct procedure.
No additional medical equipment is necessary for this test. The Romberg test does not require any equipment or instrumentation to diagnose a proprioceptive impairment or injury to the dorsal column medial lemniscus pathway. Although the test can be subject to error, accuracy is based solely on the patient's ability to follow the directions and steps of the examination. Only a trained medical professional should perform this test in a safe environment.
Examiners may perform this maneuver alone and without the assistance of another trained professional.
The trained professional administering the exam is to stand close to the patient out of caution in case of loss of balance or falling during the test to prevent any patient injury.
The patient is asked to remove shoes and then to stand with both feet together. Next, the examiner instructs the patient to hold his/her arms next to the body or crossed in front of the body. The first stage of the test involves asking the patient to keep their eyes open while the examiner assesses the patient's body movement relative to balance.
The second stage involves instructing the patient to stand erect with their eyes closed while the examiner notes any balance impairment for a duration of one minute. Swaying of the body may be observed. However, this indicates the proprioceptive correction of balance for the lack of visual or vestibular compensation available. The Rhomberg test is positive when the patient has a loss of balance with their eyes closed. Loss of balance can be defined as the increased swaying of the body, foot movement in the direction of the fall, or falling.
If performed in the correct setting by a trained medical professional, there are no known complications of this test.
The Romberg test is a simple bedside test that should be performed on all patients presenting with imbalance, dizziness, and falls. A positive Romberg test denotes sensory ataxia as the cause of postural imbalance. Sustaining balance while standing in an upright position depends on the sensory and motor pathways of the brainstem. The sensory pathway involves proprioception and the body's awareness of position and motion in space. The detection of a proprioceptive deficit with a positive Romberg test indicates further workup into myelopathies that may result in dorsal column deficits. Permanent dysfunction and disability may be remediable and treatable in some circumstances if there is early detection. The classical cause of sensory ataxia is tabes dorsalis; however, a positive Romberg test may result from inherited, metabolic, toxic, immunologic, or other disorders.
Taking a thorough history and physical is key, as well as using focused laboratory testing as indicated. For example, the clinician may choose to rule out tertiary syphilis using diagnostic studies such as serologic markers and CSF enzyme immunoassay (CSF-EIA). When seen in tertiary syphilis, the disease morbidity resulting from late-stage disease entails prompt action and treatment. Vitamin B12 deficiency resulting in subacute combined degeneration of the cord (SACD) may also result in a positive Romberg test, prompting the clinician to complete further lab testing.
There are modified versions of the Romberg test which provide a wide range of clinical applications for balance assessment. Some of these variations include:
- Sharpened Romberg Test (SRT) - used in assessing ataxia in patients recovering the severity of decompression sickness, such as in divers.
- This test procedure differs from the traditional Romberg Test in the positioning of the feet. Instead of standing with feet shoulder-width apart, the sharpened Romberg test dictates that the feet of the patient align in a strict tandem heel-to-toe position.
- Single-legged Stance Test (SLST) - mainly used to assess postural stability and control in the elderly and those with Parkinson's disease.
- Static balance test serves as a balanced assessment in Parkinson disease patients. The process entails assessing how long the patient can maintain a single-leg stance with eyes open. The test ends after 60 seconds, and each leg is tested three times.
- Sitting-rising Test (SRT)- easily administered test focused on the assessment of the elderly population as well as stroke victims as a tool to predict mortality risk.
- The evaluator instructs the patient to try to sit, rise, and then stand to a position using the minimum amount of support needed. This test is on a point scale, with measures for strength, balance, and integration aspects with 10 points being maximum.
- Get-Up and Go Test - assessment of frailty and predictor of a geriatric patient's ability to go outside alone safely.
These variations of the Romberg test mentioned above are utilized, depending on the discretion of the evaluator or physician and patient presentation. Not one test is deemed superior to the others, but slight variation in each test may provide a more specific method of detecting a postural imbalance that caters towards a particular patient profile.
Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes
The diagnosis and management of neuropathies using the Romberg Test may include the input from an infectious disease specialist, neurologist, internist, and nursing staff.
The Romberg sign is an easily administered, no-equipment, bedside physical exam maneuver used since its description in the 19th century to help diagnose tabes dorsalis and dorsal column and proprioceptive dysfunction. A positive test is the inability to maintain an erect posture over 60 seconds with eyes closed. Due to its high specificity, a positive Romberg sign is highly suggestive of diagnosing a dorsal column, medial lemniscus pathway deficit.
The examiner does not need extensive training, but precaution regarding the patient's safety and fall risk must have priority in case balance is lost during the test. The examiner must maintain close proximity with the patient so that safety is a priority throughout the exam. Since the Romberg test is not something inherently subjective in each case, the quality of the test is somewhat standardized.