The primary purpose of our study was to assess the influence of modulating sensory input with either transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or self-massage with therapy balls on the maximal range of motion (ROM) about the ankle joint when stretching the calf muscles. We also investigated the influence of these two conditions on the force capacity and force control of plantar flexor muscles. Twenty healthy adults (25 ± 3 yr) performed three sessions of ankle plantar flexor stretching (three stretches of 30 s each): stretching alone (SS), stretching with concurrent TENS (TENS), and stretching after self-massage using therapy balls (SM). TENS was applied for 60 s prior to and during each stretch, and SM was performed for 60 s prior to each of the three stretches. Maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) torque and force steadiness at 20% MVC were recorded before and at 15 min after the final stretch. Ankle dorsiflexion ROM was assessed before, after, and at 5, 10, and 15 min after the last stretch. The increase in ROM was greater after SM (24%) than after SS (13%) and TENS (9%; p < .001). Maximal discomfort level (0-10 VAS) during stretching was similar for all conditions. MVC torque increased after SM only (p < .001, Cohen's D = 1.5): SM, 16%; SS, -1%; TENS, -3%. Force steadiness did not change. The sensory fibres that contribute to stretch tolerance were engaged by self-massage but not by TENS, resulting in greater increases in flexibility and MVC torque after self-massage.
Keywords: Flexibility; plantar flexors; stretching; therapy balls; transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.