Contractile behavior of the medial gastrocnemius in children with bilateral spastic cerebral palsy during forward, uphill and backward-downhill gait

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Abstract

Background

Plantarflexor tightness due to muscle degenerations has been frequently documented in children with spastic cerebral palsy but the contractile behavior of muscles during ambulation is largely unclear. Especially the adaptability of gastrocnemius muscle contraction on sloped surface could be relevant during therapy.

Methods

Medial gastrocnemius contractions were measured during flat-forward, uphill (+12% incline) and backward-downhill (−12% decline) treadmill gait in 15 children with bilateral cerebral palsy, walking in crouch, and 17 typically developing controls (age: 7–16 years) by means of ultrasound and motion analysis. Tracked fascicle and calculated series elastic element length during gait were normalized on seated rest length. Additionally electromyography of the medial gastrocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior was collected.

Findings

During forward gait spastic gastrocnemii reached 10% shorter relative fascicle length, 5% shorter series elastic element length and showed 37% less concentric fascicle excursion than controls. No difference in eccentric fascicle excursion existed. Uphill gait increased concentric fascicle excursion in children with cerebral palsy and controls (by 23% and 41%) and tibialis anterior activity during swing (by 33% and 48%). Backward downhill gait more than doubled (+112%) eccentric fascicle excursion in cerebral palsy patients.

Interpretation

Apart from having innately shorter fascicles at rest, flat-forward walking showed that spastic gastrocnemius fascicles work at shorter relative length than those of controls. Uphill gait may be useful to concentrically train push-off skills and foot lift. During backward-downhill gait the gastrocnemius functions as a brake and displays more eccentric excursion which could potentially stimulate sarcomere-genesis in series with repeated training.

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