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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 41-46

Influence of lumbar disk herniation on chronaxie and rheobase in patients with chronic low back pain

1 Department of Medical Rehabilitation, College of Medical Sciences, University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri, Nigeria
2 Department of Physiotherapy, University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri, Nigeria

Date of Web Publication4-Jun-2015

Correspondence Address:
Sokunbi Ganiyu
Department of Medical Rehabilitation, College of Medical Sciences, University of Maiduguri, Borno State
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2348-0149.158166

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Background: In patients with chronic low back pain (LBP) and lumbar disk herniation, strength-duration curve (SDC) electrodiagnostic testing is one of the means of establishing whether or not radiculopathy is present. It appears that SDC is not used as often as it should be which may be due to lack of appreciation of its possible uses or its proven accuracy. Aim: The aim was to investigate the influence of lumbar disk herniation on rheobase and chronaxie in patients with LBP. Materials and Methods: The SDC, rheobase, and chronaxie in 10 LBP patients with radiculopathy due to lumbar disk herniation and 10 healthy controls were obtained following stimulation of tibialis anterior and peroneus muscles. Results: Tibialis anterior and peroneus muscles in both group of participants (i.e., LBP patients and healthy control) showed normal pattern typical of an innervated muscle. The rheobase and chronaxie values for tibialis anterior were 11.8 ± 1.93 mA and 0.54 ± 0.014 ms, respectively, in LBP patients and 7.4 ± 0.84 mA and 0.24 ± 0.14 ms, respectively, in control subjects. The rheobase and chronaxie values for peroneus muscles were 12.8 ± 2.93 mA and 0.41 ± 0.07 ms, respectively, in LBP patients and 7.6 ± 1.71 mA and 0.16 ± 0.01 ms, respectively, control subjects. Rheobase and chronaxie were significantly higher in LBP patients with radiculopathy than control (P < 0.00). Conclusion: SDC electrodiagnostic testing could be used to compliment normal procedure of assessment of LBP patients with disk herniation.

Keywords: Chronaxie rheobase, low back pain, lumbar disk herniation

How to cite this article:
Ganiyu S, Nasir GM, Bukar GH, Abubakar A. Influence of lumbar disk herniation on chronaxie and rheobase in patients with chronic low back pain. Niger J Exp Clin Biosci 2015;3:41-6

How to cite this URL:
Ganiyu S, Nasir GM, Bukar GH, Abubakar A. Influence of lumbar disk herniation on chronaxie and rheobase in patients with chronic low back pain. Niger J Exp Clin Biosci [serial online] 2015 [cited 2023 Mar 30];3:41-6. Available from: https://www.njecbonline.org/text.asp?2015/3/1/41/158166

  Introduction Top

Plotting a strength-duration curve (SDC) requires stimulating a muscle at its motor point with a current of fixed pulse duration ranging from 0.01 to 300 ms and recording the current strength in milliampere (mA) required to elicit a threshold twitch contraction. The mA values obtained and the pulse duration (ms) utilized is plotted on the X and Y axis respectively to obtained SDC graph. [1] The (SDC) was historically performed from the 1930s to 1960s to assess nerve injuries prior to the common recent use of electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction testing. [1] SDC was one of the methods of evaluating the severity and subsequent recovery of a nerve injury. It provides a graphic representation of the integrity of the muscle-nerve complex. The SDC remains useful even though electrophysiologic evaluation techniques have become more sophisticated in the past three decades, it still remains a reliable index of muscle/nerve functional integrity. [1],[2] The response of a nerve and a muscle to electrical stimulus depend on three variable excitation factors: Strength of the stimulus, period of time for which the current flows, and the rate of change of the stimulus. In SDC testing, the stimulus consists of rectangular impulses of interrupted direct current of varying strength and duration. SDC of a denervated muscle will be shifted to the right compared to normal innervated muscle; subsequently shifting to the left occur during reinnervation. [1] Thus, SDC can be used to demonstrate or confirm normal innervation of a muscle, presence or progress of lower motor neuron lesion disorders. [1],[2]

For many years, traditional electrodiagnosis has been the main means of testing for radiculopathies caused by lumbar disk herniation. Historically, the use of electrodiagnosis in the study of radiculopathies with disk compression evolved in three stages. It began in 1868 with Erb's method of electrodiagnosis by faradic and galvanic currents. The second stage, first through Lapigue in 1926 and then in 1941, saw the introduction of the SDC obtained with rectangular or triangular wave electrical pulses of variable duration and the three typical types of curve corresponding to normality, partial denervation, and total denervation. [2] The introduction of the needle-concentric electrode by Adrian and Bronk in 1929 marked the start of the last stage, the electromyographic one, which expanded in the 1960s. EMG still constitutes the instrumental methodology of reference in the central and peripheral nerve and muscle pathologies. [3]

In patients with chronic low back pain (LBP), it is important to establish whether or not radiculopathy is present. This is not difficult when clinical, radiological, and electromyographic abnormalities consistent with focal nerve root involvement are found. [4] However, a high percentage of the patients referred to back pain clinics presents with leg pain only. The neurological examination may be normal or confusing showing nonradicular sensory changes. [5] Imaging studies may lack diagnostic specificity. [6] Needle EMG, which tests only ventral root function, may be normal in the absence of motor symptoms. [6] The clinical presentations of lumbosacral radiculopathy vary according to the level of nerve root or roots involved. The most frequent are the L5 and S1 radiculopathies. [5] Patients present with pain, sensory loss, weakness, and reflex changes consistent with the nerve root involved. However, in radiculopathies, when the level of radicular compression must be sought, there appears to be no reason to abandon traditional electrodiagnosis, that is, SDC testing, which, compared to EMG, is easy to perform, is clearly better tolerated by patients and less costly. [3],[7],[8] It appears that SDC is not used as often as it could be, which may be due to lack of appreciation of its possible uses or its proven accuracy. Analysis of literature reveals a scarcity of data on characteristics pattern of SDC in patients who suffer LBP with radiculopathy as a results of disk herniation. The present study was designed to investigate SDC characteristics pattern and to compare rheobase and chronaxie values between LBP patients with a disk herniation at L4/L5 and apparently healthy adults.

  Materials and Methods Top


Quasi experimental design study in which the rheobase and chronaxie values obtained from SDC were compared between LBP patients with radiculopathy and apparently healthy adults.

Ethical approval

Approval to carry out this study was obtained from the Research and Ethics Committee of the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital (UMTH). All the subjects were informed of the purpose of the study. After explaining the experimental procedures and the potential risks involved, a written informed consent was obtained from all the participants.


The study included 10 patients with mechanical back pain and lumbar disk herniation and 10 apparently healthy subjects (AHS). The participants for this study were patients with a diagnosis of disk herniation at L4/L5 and LBP radiating to the leg. They were patients who attended the Department of Physiotherapy, UMTH, Maiduguri, Nigeria. The diagnosis of LBP patients with radiculopathy was established on the basis of clinical and radiological findings (X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging. Patients with any sign of serious spinal pathology (red flag) such as cauda equina syndrome, infections, and comorbid autoimmune or neoplastic pathologies were excluded. Individuals with peripheral and systemic/metabolic disease were excluded from the study.

Assessment prior to strength-duration curve testing

Patient preparation

All the participants in the study underwent detailed subjective and objective assessments to make sure that they met the criteria for participation in this study. Subjects were in supine lying position with small pillows underneath the head and knees for comfort during the testing procedure. Subjects were draped so that the lower extremity below the knee was uncovered. To maintain a standardized resting-length position of the tibialis anterior and peroneus muscles, the subject's feet were placed against a 90° footboard.

Equipment preparation

An electrical stimulator with interrupted direct current facility (W-P Instruments Inc.) was used for the SDC testing. All the wires from mains to plug box and to the machine were intact and properly insulated. The dispersive electrode was large (300 cm 2 ); the active stimulating electrode was small (4 cm 2 ). Both electrodes were covered with gauze and soaked in a hypertonic sodium chloride solution before each subject was tested. The examiner tested the machine by attaching leads and electrodes to the terminals and placing the electrodes at 10 cm distance apart on peroneus muscles. This was followed by switching "on" the machine and increasing the intensity to feel the current.


Strength-duration curve testing in the present study was carried out as described by Mogyororos et al. [9] It was carried out on tibialis anterior and peroneus muscles since L4/L5 disk herniation with nerve root compression could cause impairment of conduction on nerve supply to the hallux (big toe), ankle evertors (peroneus), and ankle dorsiflexors (tibialis anterior). The dispersive electrode was placed underneath the lateral head gastrocnemius muscle, at a point close to the entrance of common peroneal nerve into the tibialis anterior and peroneal muscles and was secured to the leg with a Velcro strap to assure proper contact. To locate where to place active electrode, the anatomic boundaries of each of the tibialis anterior muscle and peroneus group of muscles were noted when the subject actively dorsiflexed and everted the ankle of the selected limb, respectively and the largest muscle mass during contraction was located (usually located about halfway between the proximal and distal muscle fiber attachments). This area roughly corresponds to the region where the band of motor endplates runs transversely across the muscle. [8],[9] The active electrode was then moved about several points within this location to get a location of greatest contraction with least stimulation. Velcro strap was used to secure the active electrode at this point to avoid problems arising from movements of the electrode during testing.

A standard clinical technique of successively decreasing the pulse widths (300, 100, 50, 38, 10, 7, 5, 3, 1, 0.8, 0.6, 0.4, 0.3, 0.1, and 0.05 ms) while noting what current value (mA) was necessary to maintain a minimal visible contraction of the muscle was carried out. These values were recorded for each pulse duration. The longest pulse duration is chosen first and the intensity of the current is increased until the minimum observable contraction is obtained before shifting to the second longest pulse duration and so on.

Strength-duration curve was obtained by plotting the values of the current strength in milliampere required to elicit a threshold twitch contraction against the pulse duration. The smallest current that produced a muscle contraction (rheobase) and the duration of the shortest impulse that will produce a response with a current of double rheobase (the chronaxie) was then deducted from the graph. The evaluator was not involved in any other aspects of the study.

For patients with LBP and lumbar disk herniation, tibialis anterior and peroneus group of muscles on the side of pain radiation were assessed. For AHS, a random method was used to select either right or left tibialis anterior muscle and peroneus group of muscles to minimize systematic error.

Data analysis

Descriptive demographic data was presented as mean, standard deviation, frequency, and percentage. Chronaxie and rheobase values were reported as mean and standard deviation. Independent t-test was used to test the differences in the mean rheobase and chronaxie between the AHS and LBP patients with radiculopathy. Differences at P < 0.05 were considered significant. The analysis was carried out using the SPSS 10.0 for Windows (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC, US).

  Results Top

The demographic characteristics of the participants are presented in [Table 1]. We examined 10 LBP patients with disk herniation (6 males, 4 females) and 10 apparently healthy controls (6 males, 4 females). Mean age of LBP patients and controls were 40.2 ± 10.3 and 41.6 ± 8.93 years, respectively. Significant differences in gender and age and body mass index were not observed between the patients and controls (P > 0.05).
Table 1: Demographic characteristics of the participants

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[Figure 1] and [Figure 2] show the SDC obtained for the LBP patients and apparently healthy, respectively.
Figure 1: Tibialis anterior strength-duration curve of low back pain patients with radiculopathy

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Figure 2: Tibialis anterior strength-duration curve of apparently healthy subjects

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[Table 2] shows that the mean rheobase and chronaxie values for tibialis anterior muscles were 11.8 3 ± 1.93 mA and 0.54 ± 0.14 ms for the LBP patients and 7.4 ± 0.84 mA and 0.24 ± 0.14 ms in apparently healthy controls, respectively. [Figure 3] and [Figure 4] show the SDC obtained for the peroneus muscles of LBP patients and AHS, respectively. The mean rheobase and chronaxie values for peroneus muscles for the LBP patients (12.83 ± 2.93 mA, 0.41 ± 0.07 ms) and the apparently healthy control subjects (7.6 ± 1.71 mA, 0.16 ± 0.01 ms) were presented in [Table 2]. The rheobase and the chronaxie for peroneus muscles and tibialis anterior muscles showed the statistical significant difference between LBP patients and AHS (P = 0.00).
Figure 3: Peroneus muscles strength-duration curve of low back pain patients with radiculopathy

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Figure 4: Peroneus muscles strength-duration curve of apparently healthy subjects

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Table 2: Participants mean rheobase and chronaxie values

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  Discussion Top

In the present study, the shape of the SDC obtained for both AHS and LBP patients with disk herniation are typical of a normal SDC. A Normal curve as described by Sri et al., [10] is a continuous rectangular hyperbola consisting of two parts; the parts due to stimulation with pulse duration below 1.0 ms where the curves incline upward and the part due to stimulation with pulse duration above 1 ms where the curve is horizontal. What is different, however, is the value of rheobase and chronaxie obtained between the AHS and the LBP patients with disk herniation for each of the muscle investigated.

The rheobase is the smallest current that will produce a muscle contraction. [9] Reported normal rheobase in the literature vary considerably, Yerdelen et al. [11] gave a value of 8-35 V, Kullmann [12] reported a value which ranged from 15 to 30 V. Conversely, the electrical stimulator used in the present study was calibrated in milliampere thus the rheobase values obtained could not be compared with those in Yerdelen's and Kullmann's studies which measured rheobase in voltage. Melo et al. [13] reported a rheobase value of 19 mA ± 8.0 for tibialis anterior muscles (TBA) in patients with polyneuromyopathy of critical illness, which was slightly higher than the mean rheobase value for TA in LBP patients with radiculopathy obtained in our study. The differences might be partly due to the differences in the underlying conditions of patients in both studies which in turn could have affected the electrical property of the peripheral nerve in both group of patients differently.

Chronaxie is the minimal period of time for which a stimulus must flow to produce a contraction when using a stimulus of twice the rheobase strength. [9] It is a convenient single value for the excitability of a tissue and has been used as an isolated diagnostic test. [2] It appears that chronaxie for LBP patients with radiculopathy has not been widely reported, however, the chronaxie of nerve and/or innervated muscle is short, usually <1 ms; denervated muscle is a larger capacitor requiring more energy to discharge, usually with a chronaxie of >1 ms [3] and could be as high as 10 times higher than a normal innervated muscle. The values of chronaxie recorded in the present study were lower than 1 ms, thus similar to those of the previously reported for normal individuals. Different values for chronaxie have been reported for normal individual in the literature. Burke et al. [14] observed that the normal chronaxie values ranges from 0.03 to 0.08 ms while Melo et al. [13] reported 0.05-0.5 ms. 0.07-0.3 ms was reported by Arid. [15]

The mean values of chronaxie recorded for both LBP patients and apparently healthy control subjects in our present study was lower than 1 ms which is within what could be considered as being normal. This could imply that radiculopathy (or nerve root compression at L4/L5 in LBP patients that participated in this study) did not in any way affect the excitability of the involved nerve roots. However, there is a need for caution when reporting, comparing, and interpreting chronaxie values. Mogyororos et al. [9] showed that; chronaxie values are alike for anatomically related muscles of synergistic function, proximal muscles (neck, trunk and shoulder and hip) have lower chronaxies than distal muscles, and muscles of facial expression. Anterior muscles have lower chronaxies than posterior muscles in the same limb segment and flexor muscles have lower chronaxie than extensor muscles. [9],[11] Mogyororos et al. [9] pointed out that in children under the age of 18 months, chronaxie is 10 times greater than the expected value. At birth, chronaxie is 10 times higher than normal, at 3 rd month the values are lower, but still high and by 18-20 months the chronaxies fall to normal values. Dry skin, muscle fatigability, and tissue ischemia has been reported to increase the threshold and decrease the excitability of nerves and muscles by as much as 100%. [11],[16] Direct explanation was not offered for the varying values of chronaxies due to these factors. However, a rule of thumb to be kept in mind is that the effects of an electrical fields on peripheral nerves, that is, depolarization and hyperpolarization are always greater on the larger diameter axons and axons closest to the electrode. [15],[16],[17]

The higher mean values of rheobase and chronaxie of LBP patients with disk herniation than AHS in the present study perhaps might be due to other physiological effects yet to be properly investigated. In our own view this might not be as a result of reduced conduction velocity (hyperexcitability) of the nerve root caused by compression due to disk herniation since the mean chronaxie values obtained for LBP patients and AHS were within normal range. Studies comparing the chronaxie and rheobase values in patient with LBP and healthy control are scarce thus, limiting comparison of the results of our present study with others.

On the other hand, it has been reported that a pressure of 50 mmHg applied for 2 h induced only minimal or no deterioration of maximal conduction velocity and nerve fiber structure. Compression of 200 mmHg sustained for 2 h or more could cause gradual reduction on nerve conduction velocity at the level of compression, in contrast to the nerves compressed at 400 mmHg for 2 h in which conduction velocity could be reduced both at the level of compression and distal to the compressed segment. [17],[18] Morphologically, the nerves compressed at 200-400 mmHg for 2 h showed varying degrees of demyelination and axonal degeneration 3 weeks after compression. [17],[18] Thus, it could be that the impact of nerve root compression on its excitability will depends on the amount of pressure exerted on the peripheral nerve and the duration for which the pressure was exerted.

Implication for practice

Findings from the present study in terms of significant differences in the values of rheobase and chronaxie obtained with SDC between healthy control and LBP patients with disk herniation might imply that strength duration testing and SDC could be used to compliment normal procedure of assessment of LBP patients with disk herniation. Strength duration testing and SDC might not replace other diagnostic methodologies for LBP with disk herniation, but could be complementary to them.

It could be that strength duration testing and SDC may be useful in the diagnostic phase prior to rehabilitation and in the monitoring of postsurgical rehabilitation of this group of patients. More generally, it may be used in evaluating the effectiveness of a treatment or as a support in the diagnosis of these neuromusculoskeletal disorders.

Strength duration curve electrodiagnostic testing is not influenced by the will of the subject and for this reason it might also be suitable for medical-legal purposes. More so, SDC test is rapid to administer, patient compliance is good, and the costs of instrumentation are contained. For these reasons, SDC remains a valuable test in clinical practice. It might be preferred in patients with particular infectious pathologies or in those who are resistant to the use of the needle.


The study was underpowered by small number of subjects. However, findings from this study might be useful to do a power size calculation to determine the minimum number of participants that will be required for a future large randomized controlled trial.

  Conclusion Top

The outcome of this study showed evidence of raised chronaxie and rheobase in a patient with LBP with disk herniation in the muscles supplied by affected nerve root. We, therefore, suggest the use of strength duration test to compliment the procedure of assessment of patients with LBP with disk herniation.

  References Top

Friedli WG, Meyer M. Strength-duration curve: A measure for assessing sensory deficit in peripheral neuropathy. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1984;47:184-9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Jablecki CK, Andary MT, Di Benedetto M, Horowitz SH, Marino RJ, Rosenbaum RB, et al. American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine guidelines for outcome studies in electrodiagnostic medicine. Muscle Nerve 1996;19:1626-35.  Back to cited text no. 2
Lauder TD, Dillingham TR, Andary M, Kumar S, Pezzin LE, Stephens RT, et al. Effect of history and exam in predicting electrodiagnostic outcome among patients with suspected lumbosacral radiculopathy. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2000;79:60-8.  Back to cited text no. 3
Nardin RA, Patel MR, Gudas TF, Rutkove SB, Raynor EM. Electromyography and magnetic resonance imaging in the evaluation of radiculopathy. Muscle Nerve 1999;22:151-5.  Back to cited text no. 4
Frymoyer JW. Back pain and sciatica. N Engl J Med 1988;318:291-300.  Back to cited text no. 5
Robinson LR. Electromyography, magnetic resonance imaging, and radiculopathy: It′s time to focus on specificity. Muscle Nerve 1999;22:149-50.  Back to cited text no. 6
Jablecki CK. Guidelines in electrodiagnostic medicine. American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine. Muscle Nerve 1992;15:229-53.  Back to cited text no. 7
Caruso I, Monaco M, Saraceni V. Elettrodiagnosi di Stimolazione. Rome: Pozzi L. Editore; 1983.  Back to cited text no. 8
Mogyororos I, Matthew C, Burke D. Strength-duration properties of human peripheral nerve. Brain 1996;119:439-47.  Back to cited text no. 9
Siri E, Ljoka C, Mamone M, Foti C, Caruso I. Definizione dei dati normativi di rheobase, cronassia e quoziente di accomodazione nell′esame elettrodiagnostico: Studio sperimentale. Eura Medicophysica 2001;37:73-5.  Back to cited text no. 10
Yerdelen D, Uysal H, Koc F, Sarica Y. Effects of sex and age on strength-duration properties. Clin Neurophysiol 2006;117:2069-72.  Back to cited text no. 11
Kullmann DM. Neurological channelopathies. Annu Rev Neurosci 2010;33:151-72.  Back to cited text no. 12
Melo FP, Duringan J, Laurache L, Silva P, Lemos B, Fillo J. The Measurement of Chronaxie and Rheobase in Patients with Polyneuromyopathy of Critical Illness. Critical Care New Approaches. American Thoracic Society International Conference Abstract, San Diego; 2014.  Back to cited text no. 13
Burke D, Kiernan MC, Bostock H. Excitability of human axons. Clin Neurophysiol 2001;112:1575-85.  Back to cited text no. 14
Arid L. A Companion in Surgical Studies. 2 nd ed. London: Livingstone; 2007. p. 391.  Back to cited text no. 15
Kanai K, Kuwabara S, Arai K, Sung JY, Ogawara K, Hattori T. Muscle cramp in Machado-Joseph disease: Altered motor axonal excitability properties and mexiletine treatment. Brain 2003;126:965-73.  Back to cited text no. 16
Kurokawa H, Nakagawa I, Kubota M, Niinai H, Takezaki T, Yamada K. Electrophysiological examinations in Bell′s palsy using electroneuronography and strength-duration curve. Masui 1996;45:842-5.  Back to cited text no. 17
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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]

  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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