Prolonged and weak isometric contractions can result in neuromuscular fatigue. Alternation of discharge of motor units with similar thresholds (termed rotation) could be useful to minimize neuromuscular fatigue by providing periods for metabolic recovery of the contractile elements. In the present study, we investigated the prevalence of motoneuron rotation during prolonged contractions of distal limb muscles. Electromyographic (EMG; needle and surface) was recorded from muscles of the forearm and distal leg. The subject made a slowly increasing isometric contraction to recruit and discharge a motor unit (1) for a prolonged period of time (>30 min). Sometimes an additional motor unit (2) was recruited in which case the subject relaxed the contraction slightly so that only one motor unit remained tonic. Often it was this newly recruited motor unit (i.e., unit 2) that continued discharging, while motor unit 1 fell silent. Continued contraction would then lead to the resumption of tonic discharge of unit 1 and silence of unit 2. This would complete a rotation between motor units 1 and 2. During prolonged contractions, rotation was observed in ∼80% of the motor-unit pairs examined. There was no difference in rotation incidence by muscle type. For the unit pairs showing rotation, surface EMG values were significantly higher immediately prior to rotation than after rotation had occurred. Our findings show that rotation of motor units with similar recruitment thresholds during such contractions is common in distal muscles of the arm and leg and may help offset neuromuscular fatigue.
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