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J Physiol. 2002 Mar 1;539(Pt 2):637-45.

Change in length of relaxed muscle fascicles and tendons with knee and ankle movement in humans.

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Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute, University of New South Wales, Randwick 2031, Sydney, Australia.


Ultrasonography was used to measure changes in length of muscle fascicles in relaxed human tibialis anterior and gastrocnemius during passively imposed changes in joint angle. Changes in the length of muscle fascicles were compared to changes in the length of the whole muscle-tendon units calculated from joint angles and anthropometric data. Relaxed muscle fascicles underwent much smaller changes in length than their muscle-tendon units. On average, muscle fascicles in tibialis anterior 'saw' 55 +/- 13 % (mean +/- S.D.) of the total change in muscle-tendon length. This indicates nearly half of the total change in muscle-tendon length was taken up by stretch of tendon. In gastrocnemius, which has relatively long tendons, only 27 +/- 9 % of the total change in muscle-tendon length was transmitted to muscle fascicles. Thus, the tendency for passive movement to be taken up by the tendon was greater for gastrocnemius than tibialis anterior (P = 0.002). For these muscles, the relatively large changes in tendon length across much of the physiological range of muscle-tendon lengths could not wholly be explained by tendon slackness, changes in fibre pennation, or stretch or contraction history of the muscle. Our data confirm that when joints are moved passively, length changes 'seen' by muscle fascicles can be much less than changes in the distance between muscle origin and insertion. This occurs because tendons undergo significant changes in length, even at very low forces.

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