Open Access Research article

Muscle activity and head kinematics in unconstrained movements in subjects with chronic neck pain; cervical motor dysfunction or low exertion motor output?

Harald Vikne1*, Eva Sigrid Bakke1, Knut Liestøl2, Stian R Engen1 and Nina Vøllestad1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health Sciences, Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1089, Blindern, NO-0317 Oslo, Norway

2 Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1080, Blindern, NO-0316 Oslo, Norway

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2013, 14:314  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-14-314

Published: 4 November 2013



Chronic neck pain after whiplash associated disorders (WAD) may lead to reduced displacement and peak velocity of neck movements. Dynamic neck movements in people with chronic WAD are also reported to display altered movement patterns such as increased irregularity, which is suggested to signify impaired motor control. As movement irregularity is strongly related to the velocity and displacement of movement, we wanted to examine whether the increased irregularity in chronic WAD could be accounted for by these factors.


Head movements were completed in four directions in the sagittal plane at three speeds; slow (S), preferred (P) and maximum (M) in 15 men and women with chronic WAD and 15 healthy, sex and age-matched control participants. Head kinematics and measures of movement smoothness and symmetry were calculated from position data. Surface electromyography (EMG) was recorded bilaterally from the sternocleidomastoid and splenius muscles and the root mean square (rms) EMG amplitude for the accelerative and decelerative phases of movement were analyzed.


The groups differed significantly with regard to movement velocity, acceleration, displacement, smoothness and rmsEMG amplitude in agonist and antagonist muscles for a series of comparisons across the test conditions (range 17 – 121%, all p-values < 0.05). The group differences in peak movement velocity and acceleration persisted after controlling for movement displacement. Controlling for differences between the groups in displacement and velocity abolished the difference in measures of movement smoothness and rmsEMG amplitude.


Simple, unconstrained head movements in participants with chronic WAD are accomplished with reduced velocity and displacement, but with normal muscle activation levels and movement patterns for a given velocity and displacement. We suggest that while reductions in movement velocity and displacement are robust changes and may be of clinical importance in chronic WAD, movement smoothness of unconstrained head movements is not.

Whiplash associated disorder; Persistent neck pain; Movement kinematics; Electromyography; Neck muscles; Movement smoothness