The motor unit potential distribution over the skin surface and its use in estimating the motor unit location

Acta Physiol Scand. 1997 Dec;161(4):465-72. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-201X.1997.00247.x.


The amplitude of a surface electromyogram is dependent on the number of active motor units, their size and the relative position of the recording electrode. It is not possible to interpret the surface electromyogram quantitatively without disentangling these different aspects. In this study the decline of different components of the motor unit potential with increasing radial distance from the motor unit is quantified. Fifty-two motor units in the biceps brachii muscle were studied using 36-channel surface electromyography combined with intramuscular scanning electromyography. Scanning electromyography was used to locate precisely the motor unit. The dependence of the surface motor unit potential magnitude on the radial distance between the motor unit and the recording electrodes can be described fairly well by an inverse power function. The steepness of this function depends on the chosen motor unit potential parameter and the interelectrode distance, but also varies between motor units. The change of the negative peak amplitude of the motor unit potential over the skin surface can be used to give a fairly accurate estimate of the location of the motor unit under the skin surface. We found that for all practical purposes the depth of a motor unit in the biceps brachii muscle can be estimated as 20% of the distance over the skin surface where motor unit potentials can be recorded with higher amplitudes than 50% of the maximal amplitude recorded at the skin surface caused by activity of the same motor unit.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Adult
  • Electrodes
  • Electromyography
  • Electrophysiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Skin / innervation*