Critical Issues and Imminent Challenges in the Use of sEMG in Return-To-Work Rehabilitation of Patients Affected by Neurological Disorders in the Epoch of Human-Robot Collaborative Technologies

Front Neurol. 2020 Dec 22:11:572069. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2020.572069. eCollection 2020.


Patients affected by neurological pathologies with motor disorders when they are of working age have to cope with problems related to employability, difficulties in working, and premature work interruption. It has been demonstrated that suitable job accommodation plans play a beneficial role in the overall quality of life of pathological subjects. A well-designed return-to-work program should consider several recent innovations in the clinical and ergonomic fields. One of the instrument-based methods used to monitor the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions is surface electromyography (sEMG), a multi-channel, non-invasive, wireless, wearable tool, which allows in-depth analysis of motor coordination mechanisms. Although the scientific literature in this field is extensive, its use remains significantly underexploited and the state-of-the-art technology lags expectations. This is mainly attributable to technical and methodological (electrode-skin impedance, noise, electrode location, size, configuration and distance, presence of crosstalk signals, comfort issues, selection of appropriate sensor setup, sEMG amplitude normalization, definition of correct sEMG-related outcomes and normative data) and cultural limitations. The technical and methodological problems are being resolved or minimized also thanks to the possibility of using reference books and tutorials. Cultural limitations are identified in the traditional use of qualitative approaches at the expense of quantitative measurement-based monitoring methods to design and assess ergonomic interventions and train operators. To bridge the gap between the return-to-work rehabilitation and other disciplines, several teaching courses, accompanied by further electrodes and instrumentations development, should be designed at all Bachelor, Master and PhD of Science levels to enhance the best skills available among physiotherapists, occupational health and safety technicians and ergonomists.

Keywords: exoskeletons control; instrumental-based biomechanical risk assessment; manual material handling monitoring; return-to-work rehabilitation; surface electromyography.