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The spasticity paradox: movement disorder or disorder of resting limbs?
  1. J A Burne1,
  2. V L Carleton1,
  3. N J O’Dwyer2
  1. 1School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Sydney, PO Box 170, Lidcombe, NSW 1825, Australia
  2. 2School of Exercise and Sport Science, University of Sydney
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J A Burne
 University of Sydney, PO Box 170, Lidcombe, NSW 1825 Australia;


Background: Spasticity is defined/assessed in resting limbs, where increased stretch reflex activity and mechanical joint resistance are evident. Treatment with antispastic agents assumes that these features contribute to the movement disorder, although it is unclear whether they persist during voluntary contraction.

Objectives: To compare reflex amplitude and joint resistance in spastic and normal limbs over an equivalent range of background contraction.

Methods: Thirteen normal and eight hemiparetic subjects with mild/moderate spasticity and without significant contracture were studied. Reflex and passive joint resistance were compared at rest and during six small increments of biceps voluntary contraction, up to 15% of normal maximum. A novel approach was used to match contraction levels between groups.

Results: Reflex amplitude and joint mechanical resistance were linearly related to contraction in both groups. The slopes of these relations were not above normal in the spastic subjects on linear regression. Thus, reflex amplitude and joint resistance were not different between groups over a comparable range of contraction levels. Spastic subjects exhibited a smaller range of reflex modulation than normals because of decreased maximal contraction levels (weakness) and significant increases of resting contraction levels.

Conclusions: Spasticity was most evident at rest because subjects could not reduce background contraction to normal. When background contractions were matched to normal levels, no evidence of exaggerated reflex activity or mechanical resistance was found. Instead, reduced capacity to modulate reflex activity dynamically over the normal range may contribute to the movement disorder. This finding does not support the routine use of antispastic agents to treat the movement disorder.

  • EMG, electromyogram
  • TSR, tonic stretch reflex
  • MVC, maximum voluntary contraction
  • spasticity
  • tonic stretch reflex
  • stroke
  • correlation analysis
  • joint resistance

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  • Competing interests: none declared