Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Activation of peripheral nerve fibers by electrical stimulation in the sole of the foot

Ken Steffen Frahm1, Carsten Dahl Mørch1, Warren M Grill23, Nathan B Lubock2, Kristian Hennings1 and Ole Kæseler Andersen1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health Science and Technology, Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark

2 Department of Biomedical Engineering, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

3 Departments of Neurobiology and Surgery, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:116  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-116

Published: 8 October 2013



Human nociceptive withdrawal reflexes (NWR) can be evoked by electrical stimulation applied to the sole of the foot. However, elicitation of NWRs is highly site dependent, and NWRs are especially difficult to elicit at the heel. The aim of the present study was to investigate potential peripheral mechanisms for any site dependent differences in reflex thresholds.


The first part of the study investigated the neural innervation in different sites of the sole of the foot using two different staining techniques. 1) Staining for the Nav1.7 antigen (small nociceptive fibers) and 2) the Sihler whole nerve technique (myelinated part of the nerve). No differences in innervation densities were found across the sole of the foot using the two staining techniques: Nav1.7 immunochemistry (small nociceptive fibers (1-way ANOVA, NS)) and the Sihler’s method (myelinated nerve fibers (1-way ANOVA, NS)). However, the results indicate that there are no nociceptive intraepidermal nerve fibers (IENFs) innervating the heel.

Secondly, mathematical modeling was used to investigate to what degree differences in skin thicknesses affect the activation thresholds of Aδ and Aβ fibers in the sole of the foot. The modeling comprised finite element analysis of the volume conduction combined with a passive model of the activation of branching cutaneous nerve fibers. The model included three different sites in the sole of the foot (forefoot, arch and heel) and three different electrode sizes (diameters: 9.1, 12.9, and 18.3 mm). For each of the 9 combinations of site and electrode size, a total of 3000 Aβ fibers and 300 Aδ fibers was modeled. The computer simulation of the effects of skin thicknesses and innervation densities on thresholds of modeled Aδ and Aβ fibers did not reveal differences in pain and perception thresholds across the foot sole as have been observed experimentally. Instead a lack of IENFs at the heel decreased the electrical activation thresholds compared to models including IENFs.


The nerve staining and modeling results do not explain differences in NWR thresholds across the sole of the foot which may suggest that central mechanisms contribute to variation in NWR excitability across the sole of the foot.