Torque-angle relations at the elbow and ankle joints of relaxed normal controls and patients with hemiparetic stroke were compared. Low velocity flexion/hold/extension angular perturbations were applied to the joint under examination. The resulting torque-angle profiles described a hysteresis loop with similar slopes during the extension and flexion stages but separated by a vertical torque offset. Torque-angle responses obtained in the absence of significant muscle activation, as recorded by surface electromyographic activity, were designated as passive. Elbow passive stiffness estimates were calculated from the slope of the torque-angle response during the flexion stage of the perturbation. The elbow torque-angle plots exhibited linear passive stiffness with magnitude significantly lower than the passive stiffness of the ankle in both normal subjects and spastic patients. Changing ramp velocity had no significant effect on the passive torque-angle hysteresis loop at the elbow. A comparison of the torque-angle relations between hemiparetic spastic and normal control arms showed no significant differences in passive stiffness. Furthermore, no significant differences were found between paretic and contralateral upper limbs of a given hemiparetic subject. By contrast, significant differences in the torque-angle hysteresis loop were present between the paretic and contralateral ankles in all hemiparetic patients tested. These differences were more significant during dorsiflexion, and therefore seem to be related to preferential changes in mechanical properties of plantar flexor muscles. It is hypothesised that the differences in the torque-angle hysteresis loop between elbow and angle joints are related primarily to the larger amount of connective tissue in the calf muscles, as well as to a larger total physiological cross sectional area of calf muscles compared with elbow muscles. It is further hypothesized that the preferential increases in passive stiffness at the ankle in spastic legs result from immobilisation induced changes in muscle connective tissue, which are most prominent in muscles with predominantly slow-twitch fibres (such as soleus). Connective tissue surrounding such slow twitch muscle fibres have been shown to be more sensitive to immobilisation than those in fast twitch muscle. The functional, pathophysiological, and clinical implications of our findings are reviewed.
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