Mechanisms of exercise-induced muscle fibre injury

Sports Med. 1991 Sep;12(3):184-207. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199112030-00004.


Exercise for which a skeletal muscle is not adequately conditioned results in focal sites of injury distributed within and among the fibres. Exercise with eccentric contractions is particularly damaging. The injury process can be hypothesised to occur in several stages. First, an initial phase serves to inaugurate the sequence. Hypotheses for the initial event can be categorised as either physical or metabolic in nature. We argue that the initial event is physical, that stresses imposed on sarcolemma by sarcomere length inhomogeneities occurring during eccentric contractions cause disruption of the normal permeability barrier provided by the cell membrane and basal lamina. This structural disturbance allows Ca++ to enter the fibre down its electrochemical gradient, precipitating the Ca++ overload phase. If the breaks in the sarcolemma are relatively minor, the entering Ca++ may be adequately handled by ATPase pumps that sequester and extrude Ca++ from the cytoplasm ('reversible' injury). However, if the Ca++ influx overwhelms the Ca++ pumps and free cytosolic Ca++ concentration rises, the injury becomes 'irreversible'. Elevations in intracellular Ca++ levels activate a number of Ca(++)-dependent proteolytic and phospholipolytic pathways that are indigenous to the muscle fibres, which respectively degrade structural and contractile proteins and membrane phospholipids; for instance, it has been demonstrated that elevation of intracellular Ca++ levels with Ca++ ionophores results in loss of creatine kinase activity from the fibres through activation of phospholipase A2 and subsequent production of leukotrienes. This autogenetic phase occurs prior to arrival of phagocytic cells, and continues during the inflammatory period when macrophages and other phagocytic cells are active at the damage site. The phagocytic phase is in evidence by 2 to 6 hours after the injury, and proceeds for several days. The regenerative phase then restores the muscle fibre to its normal condition. Repair of the muscle fibres appears to be complete; the fibres adapt during this process so that future bouts of exercise of similar type, intensity, and duration cause less injury to the muscle.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Temperature
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Exercise*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscles / injuries*
  • Muscles / metabolism
  • Muscles / physiology
  • Phagocytes / physiology
  • Regeneration


  • Calcium