Changes in motor unit recruitment strategy during pain alters force direction

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Motor unit (MU) recruitment is altered (decreased discharge rate and cessation of discharge in some units, and recruitment of new units) in force-matched contractions during pain compared to contractions performed before pain. As MU's within a motoneurone pool have different force direction properties we hypothesised that altered MU recruitment during experimental knee pain would change the force vector (total force (FT): amplitude and angle) generated by the quadriceps. Force was produced at two levels during 1 × 60-s and 3 × 10-s isometric contractions of knee extensors, and recorded by two force transducers at right angles. This enabled calculation of both FE (extension force) and FT. MU recruitment was recorded from the medial and lateral vastii with four fine-wire electrodes. Pain was induced by hypertonic saline injection in the infra-patella fat pad. Nine subjects matched FE and six subjects also matched both medial and lateral forces (FT) before and during pain. Changes in MU discharge pattern (decreased discharge rate (P < 0.001), complete cessation of firing, and recruitment of new units) during pain were associated with a ˜5° change in absolute force angle. As force angle changed in both directions (left/right) for individual subjects with pain there was no change in average FT amplitude between conditions. When both medial and lateral forces were matched MU discharge rate decreased (P < 0.001) with pain, but, fewer units ceased firing or were newly recruited during pain. Change in motoneurone recruitment during pain alters direction of muscle force. This may be a strategy to avoid pain or protect the painful part.

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