New insights into pain-related changes in muscle activation revealed by high-density surface electromyography

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High-density surface electromyography (HDEMG) is an electrophysiological technique that can be used to quantify the spatial distribution of activity within muscles. When pain-free individuals perform sustained or repetitive tasks, different regions within a muscle become progressively more active; this is thought to reflect a strategy to redistribute the load to different regions, thus limiting localised muscle fatigue. The use of HDEMG has revealed that when people with musculoskeletal pain perform the same tasks, the distribution of activity within the same muscle is usually different, and the same muscle region tends to be active throughout the whole task without progressive activation of different muscle regions. This potentially results in a focal overload of a muscle region, and may contribute to fatigue, localised muscle pain and potentially pain persistence and/or recurrence over time. Interestingly, not all patients with musculoskeletal pain present with this regional alteration in muscle activation, reflecting the heterogeneity of patient presentations. This article will briefly review the technique of HDEMG followed by a review of studies demonstrating spatial redistribution of muscle activity in asymptomatic people during both isometric and dynamic conditions, including functional tasks. Lastly, the article will provide a review of HDEMG studies with a focus on changes in the behaviour of the lumbar erector spine and upper trapezius in people with spinal pain. These studies have revealed subtle changes in the distribution of muscle activity in people with spinal pain, which may have relevance for onset, persistence or recurrence of symptoms and could become a target of novel therapeutic approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102422
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology
Early online date23 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2020 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • Chronic pain
  • EMG
  • Erector spinae
  • Experimental pain
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Trapezius

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Biophysics
  • Clinical Neurology


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