The firing rate of low threshold motor units is decreased in constant force contractions during experimental pain. However, as firing rate is a determinant of force, it is unclear how force is maintained. Increased synergist muscle activity may compensate. This was investigated by evaluation of motor unit firing rate in synergist ankle plantar flexor muscles (triceps surae). Single motor unit action potentials were recorded in medial gastrocnemius and soleus muscles with fine wire electrodes in 10 subjects. Gross muscle activity was estimated from surface electromyographic (EMG) recordings. Bolus injections of 5% hypertonic saline were injected into lateral gastrocnemius to induce pain (low intensity, 0.5 mL; high intensity, 1.5 mL). Subjects gently plantar-flexed the ankle to recruit 1 to 4 motor units and performed 3 20-second contractions to this target before, during, and after pain. Firing rate decreased approximately 12% in synergist heads of triceps surae during pain and recovered after pain. Despite reduced firing rate, root-mean-square surface EMG amplitude did not change. The effect of nociceptor stimulation is not restricted to painful muscles but reduces motor unit firing in synergist muscles. Changes in synergist muscles cannot explain the maintenance of muscle force. Maintenance of surface EMG amplitude suggests recruitment of additional motor units.
Perspective: This study showed that activity of synergist muscles can be affected by muscle pain. However, the changes in activity of synergist muscles may not compensate for changes in the painful muscle. This finding provides evidence of more widespread effects of pain on muscle control.