The control of self-initiated falls from different heights was studied. The objective of the study was to investigate in a quantitative manner the modulation of EMG timing (i.e. onset from take-off and duration from onset to touch-down) and amplitude (before and after foot contact) as a function of fall height. The muscles studied were m. soleus and m. tibialis anterior. Kinematic (ankle joint angle) and kinetic (ground reaction force) variables were also measured. Six subjects took part in the experiments that consisted of ten landings from each of five heights (0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8 and 1 m) onto a force platform. We found a consistent pattern of co-contraction before and after touch-down across the fall heights studied. In both muscles, the onset of pre-landing EMG activity occurred at a longer latency following take-off when landing from greater heights. The absolute EMG duration was affected to a lesser extent by increasing fall height. These findings suggest that the onset of muscle activity of the muscles studied prior to foot contact is timed relative to the expected time of foot contact. Pre- and post-landing EMG amplitude tended to increase with height. Despite a doubling in the magnitude of ground reaction force, the amplitude of ankle joint rotation caused by the impact remained constant across heights. These findings suggest that the observed pattern of co-contraction is responsible for increasing ankle joint stiffness as fall height is increased. The attainment of an appropriate level of EMG amplitude seems to be controlled by (a) timing muscle activation at a latency timed from the expected instant of foot contact and (b) varying the rate at which EMG builds up.
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