Background: The present article systematically reviews recent literature on the in vivo adaptation of asymptomatic human tendons following increased chronic mechanical loading, and meta-analyzes the loading conditions, intervention outcomes, as well as methodological aspects.
Methods: The search was performed in the databases PubMed, Web of Knowledge, and Scopus as well as in the reference lists of the eligible articles. A study was included if it conducted (a) a longitudinal exercise intervention (≥8 weeks) on (b) healthy humans (18 to 50 years), (c) investigating the effects on mechanical (i.e., stiffness), material (i.e., Young's modulus) and/or morphological properties (i.e., cross-sectional area (CSA)) of tendons in vivo, and was reported (d) in English language. Weighted average effect sizes (SMD, random-effects) and heterogeneity (Q and I 2 statistics) of the intervention-induced changes of tendon stiffness, Young's modulus, and CSA were calculated. A subgroup analysis was conducted regarding the applied loading intensity, muscle contraction type, and intervention duration. Further, the methodological study quality and the risk of bias were assessed.
Results: The review process yielded 27 studies with 37 separate interventions on either the Achilles or patellar tendon (264 participants). SMD was 0.70 (confidence interval: 0.51, 0.88) for tendon stiffness (N=37), 0.69 (0.36, 1.03) for Young's modulus (N=17), and 0.24 (0.07, 0.42) for CSA (N=33), with significant overall intervention effects (p<0.05). The heterogeneity analysis (stiffness: I 2 =30%; Young's modulus: I 2 =57%; CSA: I 2 =21%) indicated that differences in the loading conditions may affect the adaptive responses. The subgroup analysis confirmed that stiffness adaptation significantly (p<0.05) depends on loading intensity (I 2 =0%), but not on muscle contraction type. Although not significantly different, SMD was higher for interventions with longer duration (≥12 weeks). The average score of 71±9% in methodological quality assessment indicated an appropriate quality of most studies.
Conclusions: The present meta-analysis provides elaborate statistical evidence that tendons are highly responsive to diverse loading regimens. However, the data strongly suggests that loading magnitude in particular plays a key role for tendon adaptation in contrast to muscle contraction type. Furthermore, intervention-induced changes in tendon stiffness seem to be more attributed to adaptations of the material rather than morphological properties.