Muscle weakness, paralysis, and atrophy after human cervical spinal cord injury

C. K. Thomas, E. Y. Zaidner, B. Calancie, J. G. Broton, B. R. Bigland-Ritchie

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113 Scopus citations


Muscle weakness and failure of central motor drive were assessed in triceps brachii muscles of individuals with chronic cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) and able-bodied controls. Electrical stimuli were applied to the radial nerve during rest and during triceps submaximal and maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs). The mean forces and integrated EMGs generated by SCI subjects during MVCs were significantly less than those produced by controls (P < 0.01), with 74 and 71% of muscles generating < 10% control force and EMG, respectively. There was an inverse linear relationship between the evoked and voluntary forces (n = 32 muscles of SCI subjects) which, when extrapolated to zero evoked force, also showed significant whole muscle weakness for SCI compared to control subjects (P < 0.01). Severe muscle atrophy was revealed which might reflect disuse and/or muscle denervation subsequent to motoneuron loss. Many triceps muscles of SCI subjects showed no force occlusion (n = 41) or were impossible to stimulate selectively (n = 61). Force was always evoked when the radial nerve was stimulated during MVCs of SCI subjects. The force elicited by single magnetic shocks applied to the motor cortex at Cz' during voluntary contractions of SCI subjects was also inversely related to the voluntary triceps force exerted (n = 18), but usually no force could be elicited during MVCs. Thus central motor drive was probably maximal to these muscles, and the force evoked during MVCs by below- lesion stimulation must come from activation of paralyzed muscle. SCI subjects also had significantly longer mean central nervous system (CNS) conduction times to triceps (P < 0.01) suggesting that the measured deficits reflect CNS rather than peripheral nervous system factors. Thus, the weak voluntary strength of these partially paralyzed muscles is not due to submaximal excitation of higher CNS centers, but results mainly from reduction of this input to triceps motoneurons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)414-423
Number of pages10
JournalExperimental neurology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1997


  • Motor evoked potential
  • Muscle compound action potential
  • Muscle denervation
  • Muscle strength
  • Nerve stimulation
  • Twitch occlusion
  • Voluntary muscle activation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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