This exploratory study was undertaken to investigate the mechanisms that contributed to improvements in upper limb function following a novel training program. Surface electromyography (EMG) was used to examine training-induced changes in the pattern of triceps and biceps activation during reaching tasks in stroke survivors with severe paresis in the chronic stage of recovery. The EMG data were obtained in the context of a single blind randomised clinical trial conducted with 42 stroke survivors with minimal upper limb muscle activity and who were more than 6 months post-stroke. Of the 33 participants who completed the study, 10 received training of reaching using a non-robotic upper limb training device, the SMART Arm, with EMG triggered functional electrical stimulation (EMG-stim), 13 received training of reaching using the SMART Arm alone, and 10 received no intervention. Each intervention group engaged in 12 1-h training sessions over a 4-week period. Clinical and laboratory measures of upper limb function were administered prior to training (0 weeks), at completion (4 weeks) and 2 months (12 weeks) after training. The primary outcome measure was 'upper arm function' which is Item 6 of the Motor Assessment Scale (MAS). Laboratory measures consisted of two multijoint reaching tasks to assess 'maximum isometric force' and 'maximum distance reached'. Surface EMG was used to monitor triceps brachii and biceps brachii during the two reaching tasks. To provide a comparison with normal values, seven healthy adults were tested on one of the reaching tasks according to the same procedure. Study findings demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in upper limb function for stroke participants in the two training groups compared to those who received no training however no difference was found between the two training groups. For the reaching tasks, all stroke participants, when compared to normal healthy adults, exhibited lower triceps and biceps activation and a lower ratio of triceps to biceps activation. Following training, stroke participants demonstrated increased triceps activation and an increased ratio of triceps to biceps activation for the task that was trained. Better performance was associated with greater triceps activation and a higher ratio of triceps to biceps activation. The findings suggest that increased activation of triceps as an agonist and an improved coordination between triceps and biceps could have mediated the observed changes in arm function. The changes in EMG activity were small relative to the changes in arm function indicating that factors, such as the contribution of other muscles of reaching, may also be implicated.
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