Interpretation of EMG changes with fatigue: facts, pitfalls, and fallacies

J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2003 Feb;13(1):13-36. doi: 10.1016/s1050-6411(02)00083-4.


Failure to maintain the required or expected force, defined as muscle fatigue, is accompanied by changes in muscle electrical activity. Although studied for a long time, reasons for EMG changes in time and frequency domain have not been clear until now. Many authors considered that theory predicted linear relation between the characteristic frequencies and muscle fibre propagation velocity (MFPV), irrespective of the fact that spectral characteristics can drop even without any changes in MFPV, or in proportion exceeding the MFPV changes. The amplitude changes seem to be more complicated and contradictory since data on increased, almost unchanged, and decreased amplitude characteristics of the EMG, M-wave or motor unit potential (MUP) during fatigue can be found in literature. Moreover, simultaneous decrease and increase in amplitude of MUP and M-wave, detected with indwelling and surface electrodes, were referred to as paradoxical. In spite of this, EMG amplitude characteristics are predominantly used when causes for fatigue are analysed. We aimed to demonstrate theoretical grounds for pitfalls and fallacies in analysis of experimental results if changes in intracellular action potential (IAP), i.e. in peripheral factors of muscle fatigue, were not taken into consideration. We based on convolution model of potentials produced by a motor unit and detected by a point or rectangular plate electrode in a homogeneous anisotropic infinite volume conductor. Presentation of MUP in the convolution form gave us a chance to consider power spectrum (PS) of MUP as a product of two terms. The first one, PS of the input signal, represented PS of the first temporal derivative of intracellular action potential (IAP). The second term, PS of the impulse response, took into account MFPV, differences in instants of activation of each fibre, MU anatomy, and MU position in the volume conductor in respect to the detecting electrode. PS presentation through product means that not only changes in MFPV could be responsible for PS shift as is usually assumed. Changes in IAP duration and IAP after-potential magnitude, affecting the first term of the product, influence the product and thus MUP PS. Moreover, the interrelations between the two spectra and thus sensitivity of spectrum to different parameters change with MU-electrode distance because the second term depends on it. Thus, we have demonstrated that theory does not predict a linear relation between the characteristic frequencies (maximum, mean and median) and MFPV. IAP duration and after-potential magnitude are among parameters affecting MUP or M-wave PS and thus, EMG PS detected by monopolar and bipolar electrodes. Usage of single fibre action potential models instead of MUP ones can result in false dependencies of frequency characteristics. The MUP amplitude characteristics are determined not only by amplitude of IAP, but also by the length of the IAP profile and source-electrode distance. Due to the IAP profile lengthening and an increase in the negative after-potential, surface detected EMG amplitude characteristics can increase even when IAP amplitude decreases considerably during fatigue. Increase in surface detected MUP or M-wave amplitude should not be attributed to a weaker attenuation of the low-frequency components with distance. Simultaneous decrease and increase in amplitude of MUP and M-wave detected with indwelling and surface electrodes are regular, not paradoxical. Corner frequency of the high pass filter should be 0.5 or 1 Hz when muscle fatigue is analyzed. The area of MUP or M-wave normalized in respect of the amplitude of the terminal phase (that is produced during extinction of the depolarized zones at the ends of the fibres) could be useful as a fatigue index. Analysing literature data on IAP changes due to Ca(2+) increasing, we hypothesised that the ability of muscle fibres to uptake Ca(2+) back into the sarcoplasmic reticulum could be the limiting site for fatigue. If this hypothesis is valid, IAP changes are not a cause of fatigue; they are due to it.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Electromyography*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle Fatigue / physiology*
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology