Process of graphically recording the electrical activity of muscle, which normally generates an electric current only when contracting or when its nerve is stimulated. Electrical impulses are shown as wavelike tracings on a cathode-ray oscilloscope and recorded as an electromyogram (EMG), usually along with audible signals. The EMG can show whether muscle weakness or wasting is due to nerve impairment (as in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and poliomyelitis) or muscle impairment or disease (myopathy).
Learn more about electromyography with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Typical repetition rate of muscle unit firing is about 7–20 Hz, depending on the size of the muscle (eye muscles versus seat (gluteal) muscles), previous axonal damage and other factors. Damage to motor units can be expected at ranges between 450 and 780 mV.
It is not until the middle of the 1980s that integration techniques in electrodes had sufficiently advanced to allow batch production of the required small and lightweight instrumentation and amplifiers. At present a number of suitable amplifiers are commercially available. In the early 1980s, cables became available which produce artifacts in the desired microvolt range. During the past 15 years, research has resulted in a better understanding of the properties of surface EMG recording. In recent years, surface electromyography is increasingly used for recording from superficial muscles in clinical protocols, where intramuscular electrodes are used for deep muscle only.
There are many applications for the use of EMG. EMG is used clinically for the diagnosis of neurological and neuromuscular problems. It is used diagnostically by gait laboratories and by clinicians trained in the use of biofeedback or ergonomic assessment. EMG is also used in many types of research laboratories, including those involved in biomechanics, motor control, neuromuscular physiology, movement disorders, postural control, and physical therapy.
Intramuscular EMG may be considered too invasive or too specific in some cases. A surface electrode may be used to monitor the general picture of muscle activation, as opposed to the activity of only a few fibres as observed using a needle. This technique is used in a number of settings; for example, in the physiotherapy clinic, muscle activation is monitored using surface EMG and patients have an auditory or visual stimulus to help them know when they are activating the muscle (biofeedback).
A motor unit is defined as one motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it innervates. When a motor unit fires, the impulse (called an action potential) is carried down the motor neuron to the muscle. The area where the nerve contacts the muscle is called the neuromuscular junction, or the motor end plate. After the action potential is transmitted across the neuromuscular junction, an action potential is elicited in all of the innervated muscle fibers of that particular motor unit. The sum of all this electrical activity is known as a motor unit action potential (MUAP). This electrophysiologic activity from multiple motor units is the signal typically evaluated during an EMG. The composition of the motor unit, the number of muscle fibres per motor unit, the metabolic type of muscle fibres and many other factors affect the shape of the motor unit potentials in the myogram.
Nerve conduction testing is also often done at the same time as an EMG in order to diagnose neurological diseases.
Patients can occasionally find the procedure somewhat painful while others experience only a small amount of discomfort when the needle is inserted. The muscle or muscles being tested may be slightly sore for a day or two after the procedure.
Neuropathic disease has the following defining EMG characteristics:
Myopathic disease has these defining EMG characteristics:
Because of the individuality of each patient and disease, some of these characteristics may not appear in every case.
Abnormal results may be caused by the following medical conditions (please note this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of conditions that can result in abnormal EMG studies):
EMG signals are essentially made up of superimposed motor unit action potentials (MUAPs) from several motor units. For a thorough analysis, the measured EMG signals can be decomposed into their constituent MUAPs. MUAPs from different motor units tend to have different characteristic shapes, while MUAPs recorded by the same electrode from the same motor unit are typically similar. Notably MUAP size and shape depend on where the electrode is located with respect to the fibers and so can appear to be different if the electrode moves position. EMG decomposition is non-trivial, although many methods have been proposed.
EMG can be used to sense isometric muscular activity where no movement is produced. This enables definition of a class of subtle motionless gestures to control interfaces without being noticed and without disrupting the surrounding environment. These signals can be used to control a prosthesis or as a control signal for an electronic device such as a mobile phone or PDA.
EMG signals have been targeted as control for flight systems. The Human Senses Group at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA seeks to advance man-machine interfaces by directly connecting a person to a computer. In this project, an EMG signal is used to substitute for mechanical joysticks and keyboards. EMG has also been used in research towards a "wearable cockpit" which employs EMG-based gestures to manipulate switches and control sticks necessary for flight in conjunction with a goggle-based display.
Unvoiced speech recognition recognizes speech by observing the EMG activity of muscles associated with speech. It is targeted for use in noisy environments, and may be helpful for people without vocal cords and people with aphasia.
EMG has also been used as a control signal for computers and other devices. An interface device based on EMG could be used to control moving objects, such as mobile robots or an electric wheelchair. This may be helpful for individuals who cannot operate a joystick-controlled wheelchair. Surface EMG recordings may also be a suitable control signal for some interactive video games.
An EMG sensor switch was developed in 2008 called the Libertas EMG Sensor(). This sensor picks up minute EMG signals typically from ALS victims with little remaining muscular activity. The Libertas transmits the EMG signal through Bluetooth to a computer. When volitional muscle contration is detected, virtual switch closure is then passed to specialized augmentative communication software that allows users to control the computer with any remaining muscles under volitional control. The technique effectively replaces the keyboard and mouse inputs with EMG control.