Background: Stroke is known to alter muscle stretch responses following a perturbation, but little is known about the behavioural consequences of these altered feedback responses. Characterizing impairments in people with stroke in their interactions with the external environment may lead to better long term outcomes. This information can inform therapists about rehabilitation targets and help subjects with stroke avoid injury when moving in the world.
Methods: In this study, we developed a postural perturbation task to quantity upper limb function of subjects with subacute stroke (n = 38) and non-disabled controls (n = 74) to make rapid corrective responses with the arm. Subjects were instructed to maintain their hand at a target before and after a mechanical load was applied to the limb. Visual feedback of the hand was removed for half of the trials at perturbation onset. A number of parameters quantified subject performance, and impairment in performance was defined as outside the 95th percentile performance of control subjects.
Results: Individual subjects with stroke showed increased postural instability (44%), delayed motor responses (79%), delayed returns towards the spatial target (79%), and greater endpoint errors (74%). Several subjects also showed impairments in the temporal coordination of the elbow and shoulder joints when responding to the perturbation (47%). Interestingly, impairments in task parameters were often found for both arms of individual subjects with stroke (up to 58% for return time). Visual feedback did not improve performance on task parameters except for decreasing endpoint error for all subjects. Significant correlations between task performance and clinical measures were dependent on the arm assessed.
Conclusions: This study used a simple postural perturbation task to highlight that subjects with stroke commonly have difficulties responding to mechanical disturbances that may have important implications for their ability to perform daily activities.