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J Neurophysiol. 2017 Feb 1;117(2):509-522. doi: 10.1152/jn.00699.2016. Epub 2016 Nov 2.

Neuromuscular responses differ between slip-induced falls and recoveries in older adults.

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Department of Kinesiology, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois;
Department of Physical Therapy, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.
W. H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia; and.
Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Division of Physical Therapy, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia.


How does the robust control of walking and balance break down during a fall? Here, as a first step in identifying the neuromuscular determinants of falls, we tested the hypothesis that falls and recoveries are characterized by differences in neuromuscular responses. Using muscle synergy analysis, conventional onset latencies, and peak activity, we identified differences in muscle coordination between older adults who fell and those who recovered from a laboratory-induced slip. We found that subjects who fell recruited fewer muscle synergies than those who recovered, suggesting a smaller motor repertoire. During slip trials, compared with subjects who recovered, subjects who fell had delayed knee flexor and extensor onset times in the leading/slip leg, as well as different muscle synergy structure involving those muscles. Therefore, the ability to coordinate muscle activity around the knee in a timely manner may be critical to avoiding falls from slips. Unique to subjects who fell during slip trials were greater bilateral (interlimb) muscle activation and the recruitment of a muscle synergy with excessive coactivation. These differences in muscle coordination between subjects who fell and those who recovered could not be explained by differences in gait-related variables at slip onset (i.e., initial motion state) or variations in slip difficulty, suggesting that differences in muscle coordination may reflect differences in neural control of movement rather than biomechanical constraints imposed by perturbation or initial walking mechanics. These results are the first step in determining the causation of falls from the perspective of muscle coordination. They suggest that there may be a neuromuscular basis for falls that could provide new insights into treatment and prevention. Further research comparing the muscle coordination and mechanics of falls and recoveries within subjects is necessary to establish the neuromuscular causation of falls.


A central question relevant to the prevention of falls is: How does the robust control of walking and balance break down during a fall? Previous work has focused on muscle coordination during successful balance recoveries or the kinematics and kinetics of falls. Here, for the first time, we identified differences in the spatial and temporal coordination of muscles among older adults who fell and those who recovered from an unexpected slip.


balance; falls; muscle coordination; muscle synergy; neuromechanics

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