Neuromuscular electrical stimulation and voluntary muscle contraction are two exercise modes widely used in rehabilitation to strengthen skeletal muscle. Since there is no debate as to which mode is most effective, we compared electrical stimulation with voluntary contraction performed at matched intensities following reconstructive surgery of the anterior cruciate ligament. Forty men and women, aged 15-44, were randomly assigned to either an electrical stimulation or a voluntary contraction group. None of the subjects had a previous history of neuromuscular injury. The subjects received treatment for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 4 weeks. Knee extension torque was monitored during treatment to try to match the absolute muscular tensions (quantified as "activity") achieved during therapy. To match the activity of the subjects in the electrical stimulation group, who were treated at the highest stimulation intensity they could tolerate, the subjects in the voluntary contraction group were paced at progressively increasing intensities corresponding to 15, 25, 35, and 45% of the injured limb's maximum voluntary torque during weeks 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively. We found no significant difference between the groups in terms of maximum voluntary knee extension torque throughout the study period. In addition, 1 year after surgery, there was still no significant difference between groups with regard to knee extension torque (p > 0.4). These data suggest that neuromuscular electrical stimulation and voluntary muscle contraction treatments, when performed at the same intensity, are equally effective in strengthening skeletal muscle that has been weakened by surgical repair of the anterior cruciate ligament.
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