Background: Previous studies have demonstrated that post-stroke gait rehabilitation combining functional electrical stimulation applied to the ankle muscles during fast treadmill walking (FastFES) improves gait biomechanics and clinical walking function. However, there is considerable inter-individual variability in response to FastFES. Although FastFES aims to sculpt ankle muscle coordination, whether changes in ankle muscle activity underlie observed gait improvements is unknown. The aim of this study was to investigate three cases illustrating how FastFES modulates ankle muscle recruitment during walking.
Methods: We conducted a preliminary case series study on three individuals (53-70y; 2M; 35-60 months post-stroke; 19-22 lower extremity Fugl-Meyer) who participated in 18 sessions of FastFES (3 sessions/week; ClinicalTrials.gov: NCT01668602). Clinical walking function (speed, six-minute walk test, and Timed-Up-and-Go test), gait biomechanics (paretic propulsion and ankle angle at initial-contact), and plantarflexor (soleus) / dorsiflexor (tibialis anterior) muscle recruitment were assessed pre- and post-FastFES while walking without stimulation.
Results: Two participants (R1, R2) were categorized as responders based on improvements in clinical walking function. Consistent with heterogeneity of clinical and biomechanical changes commonly observed following gait rehabilitation, how muscle activity was altered with FastFES differed between responders.R1 exhibited improved plantarflexor recruitment during stance accompanied by increased paretic propulsion. R2 exhibited improved dorsiflexor recruitment during swing accompanied by improved paretic ankle angle at initial-contact. In contrast, the third participant (NR1), classified as a non-responder, demonstrated increased ankle muscle activity during inappropriate phases of the gait cycle. Across all participants, there was a positive relationship between increased walking speeds after FastFES and reduced SOL/TA muscle coactivation.
Conclusion: Our preliminary case series study is the first to demonstrate that improvements in ankle plantarflexor and dorsiflexor muscle recruitment (muscles targeted by FastFES) accompanied improvements in gait biomechanics and walking function following FastFES in individuals post-stroke. Our results also suggest that inducing more appropriate (i.e., reduced) ankle plantar/dorsi-flexor muscle coactivation may be an important neuromuscular mechanism underlying improvements in gait function after FastFES training, suggesting that pre-treatment ankle muscle status could be used for inclusion into FastFES. The findings of this case-series study, albeit preliminary, provide the rationale and foundations for larger-sample studies using similar methodology.