Dr. Iredell Iglehart and I submitted this letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in early 1987, after reading their report of a supposedly new physical sign using the technique of auscultatory percussion. It was not new. The letter was rejected.

To the Editor:

In a recent letter to the Journal Guarino describes an apparently novel method of detecting ascites: the diaphragm of the stethoscope is placed just superior to the pubic crest of a patient who has been standing for three minutes or more, and the physician determines by auscultation the level where the timbre of the “finger-flicking” percussion note changes from dull to loud (1). A similar technique, alas, was described in the 1930s by two French physicians (2) (3). Without mentioning the three-minute caveat, they found that if the physician auscultated in the iliac fossa of a standing patient with ascites, and percussed the abdomen from superior to inferior, the percussion note had a brusque augmentation at the top of the zone liquidienne (2).

More interestingly, however, the thrust of their articles is directed at a technique they considered far more sensitive and convenient in detecting ascites: listening with the stethoscope bell in one iliac fossa while percussing the contralateral fossa with a “finger pulled back like a hammer” (doigt recourbe en marteau) (3). The presence of ascites is indicated by a distinctive double note in response to percussion (le double bruit ascitique), whereas a single note is heard in normal patients. Abdominal distention due to large ovarian cysts (3) or “enormous urinary retention” (2), the authors say, yields a single sound, while, in cases of hydatidiform cyst, a second sound is present, but of a different character (l’echo hydatique) (2). The authors further claim that, with the patient standing, their method is capable of demonstrating ascites of volume small enough to have otherwise escaped clinical detection. We have ourselves heard the ascitic double note, which the French authors considered the sonic manifestation of a fluid wave (3).

Two hundred years ago, Marie Antoinette’s milliner is reported to have said, “There is nothing new except what is forgotten” (4). The advent of computer-based bibliographic retrieval systems has dramatically improved mankind’s scientific “memory,” but has not perfected it. Thus, there still is (and, most likely, always will be) a vast corpus of pre-electronic knowledge, searchable only by means that are both painful and tedious. Unfortunately, when dealing with an art as ancient as the physical examination, the scrutiny of this literature demands added attention (5).

(1) Guarino JR. Auscultatory percussion to detect ascites. N Engl J Med. 1986 Dec 11;315(24):1555-6.   Pubmed 3785320

(2) Lian C, Odinet J. De l'existence d'un double bruit par la percussion abdominale dans l'ascite. Societe Medicale des Hospitaux de Paris. 1931; 55: 1402-1408.

(3) Lian C, Odinet J. Le double bruit ascitique et le signe de la matite horizontale dans la station debout. Presse Medicale. 1934; 42: 1337-1338.

(4) Bartlett J (comp.). _Familiar Quotations_. 13th ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955; 1002.

(5) Sotos JG. Diagnosis of fractures of the hip and pelvis (continued). N Engl J Med. 1983 Apr 21;308(16):971.   Pubmed 6835304