Despite the importance of the thumb to hand function, little is known about the origins of thumb impairment poststroke. Accordingly, the primary purpose of this study was to assess whether thumb flexors have heightened stretch reflexes (SRs) following stroke-induced hand impairment. The secondary purpose was to compare SR characteristics of thumb flexors in relation to those of finger flexors since it is unclear whether SR properties of both muscle groups are similarly affected poststroke. Stretch reflexes in thumb and finger flexors were assessed at rest on the paretic side in each of 12 individuals with chronic, severe, stroke-induced hand impairment and in the dominant thumb in each of eight control subjects also at rest. Muscle activity and passive joint flexion torques were measured during imposed slow (SS) and fast stretches (FS) of the flexors that span the metacarpophalangeal joints. Putative spasticity was then quantified in terms of the peak difference between FS and SS joint torques and electromyographic changes. For both the hemiparetic and control groups, the mean normalized peak torque differences (PTDs) measured in thumb flexors were statistically indistinguishable (P = 0.57). In both groups, flexor muscles were primarily unresponsive to rapid stretching. For 10 of 12 hemiparetic subjects, PTDs in thumb flexors were less than those in finger flexors (P = 0.03). Paretic finger flexor muscle reflex activity was consistently elicited during rapid stretching. These results may reflect an important difference between thumb and finger flexors relating to properties of the involved muscle afferents and spinal motoneurons.
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