Sway-dependent changes in standing ankle stiffness caused by muscle thixotropy

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Quiet standing is achieved through a combination of active and passive mechanisms, consisting of neural control and intrinsic mechanical stiffness of the ankle joint, respectively. The mechanical stiffness is partly determined by the calf muscles. However, the viscoelastic properties of muscle are highly labile, exhibiting a strong dependence on movement history. By measuring the effect of sway history upon ankle stiffness, the present study determines whether this lability has consequences for the passive stabilization of human standing. Ten subjects stood quietly on a rotating platform whose axis was collinear with the ankle joint. Ankle sway was increased by slowly tilting this platform in a random fashion, or decreased by fixing the body to a board. Ankle stiffness was measured by using the same platform to simultaneously apply small, brief perturbations (<0.6 deg; 140 ms) at the same time as the resulting torque response was recorded. The results show that increasing sway reduces ankle stiffness by up to 43% compared to the body-fixed condition. Normal quiet stance was associated with intermediate values. The effect was most apparent when using smaller perturbation amplitudes to measure stiffness (0.1 vs. 0.6 deg). Furthermore, torque responses exhibited a biphasic pattern, consisting of an initial steep rise followed by a shallower increase. This transition occurred earlier during increased levels of ankle sway. These results are consistent with a movement-dependent change in passive ankle stiffness caused by thixotropic properties of the calf muscle. The consequence is to place increased reliance upon active neural control during times when increased sway renders ankle stiffness low.

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