The Association Between Corticomotor Excitability and Motor Skill Learning in People With Painful Hand Arthritis

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Previous studies have shown a tendency for reduced motor cortex inhibition in chronic pain populations. People with chronic pain also routinely demonstrate motor deficiencies, including skill learning. The goals of the current study were to (1) provide a thorough analysis of corticomotor and intracortical excitability in people with chronic arthritic hand pain, and (2) examine the relationship between these measures and performance on a motor skill learning task.


Twenty-three people with arthritic hand pain and 20 pain-free controls participated in a cross-sectional study. Transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to assess corticomotor and intracortical excitability of the first dorsal interosseus muscle. Participants then completed a 30-minute motor skill training task involving the index finger of the same hand.


Hand arthritis participants showed evidence of reduced intracortical inhibition and enhanced facilitation, which correlated with duration of hand pain. Arthritis participants were initially poorer at the motor skill task but over the total training time performance was equivalent between groups. There were no associations found between measures of intracortical excitability and motor skill learning.


Our findings are the first to provide evidence of cortical disinhibition in people with painful arthritis, as previously demonstrated in other chronic pain populations. Cortical excitability changes may progress the longer pain persists, with increased pain duration being associated with greater cortical disinhibition. There was no evidence that these changes in cortical excitability are related to impaired motor function or skill learning.

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