As individuals with musculoskeletal disorders often experience motor impairments, contemporary rehabilitation relies heavily on the use of motor learning principles. However, motor impairments are often associated with pain. Although there is substantial evidence that muscle pain interferes with motor control, much less is known on its impact on motor learning. The objective of the present study was to assess the effects of muscle pain on locomotor learning. Two groups (Pain and Control) of healthy participants performed a locomotor adaptation task (robotized ankle-foot orthosis perturbing ankle movements during swing) on two consecutive days. On day 1 (acquisition), hypertonic saline was injected in the tibialis anterior (TA) muscle of the Pain group participants, while Control group participants were pain free. All participants were pain free on day 2 (retention). Changes in movement errors caused by the perturbation were assessed as an indicator of motor performance. Detailed analysis of kinematic and electromyographic data provided information about motor strategies. No between-group differences were observed on motor performance measured during the acquisition and retention phases. However, Pain group participants had a residual movement error later in the swing phase and smaller early TA activation than Control group participants, thereby suggesting a reduction in the use of anticipatory motor strategies to overcome the perturbation. Muscle pain did not interfere with global motor performance during locomotor adaptation. The different motor strategies used in the presence of muscle pain may reflect a diminished ability to anticipate the consequences of a perturbation. NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study shows that experimental muscle pain does not influence global motor performance during the acquisition or next-day retention phases of locomotor learning. This contrasts with previous results obtained with cutaneous pain, emphasizing the risk of directly extrapolating from one pain modality to another. Muscle pain affected motor strategies used when performing the task, however: it reduced the ability to use increased feedforward control to overcome the force field.
Keywords: experimental pain; gait; motor learning; muscle pain; plasticity.