Electromyography: What is it? Medical Uses, History, Technique and Results of the Procedure

Known as EMG (for its acronym in English), is a diagnostic procedure that assesses the state of health of the muscles and nerve cells that control them.

These neurons are known as motor neurons. They transmit electrical signals that cause the muscles to contract and relax. An electromyography translates these signals into graphs or numbers, helping doctors make a diagnosis.

A doctor will usually order electromyography when someone shows symptoms of a muscle or nervous disorder. These symptoms may include unexplained tingling, numbness or weakness in the extremities.

The results of electromyography can help the doctor diagnose muscle disorders, nervous disorders and disorders that affect the connection between nerves and muscles. Some doctors may refer to electromyography as an electrodiagnostic test.

Medical uses

The electromyography test has a variety of clinical and biomedical applications.

Electromyography is used as a diagnostic tool to identify neuromuscular diseases, or as a research tool for the study of kinesiology and motor control disorders.

Electromyography signals are sometimes used to guide botulinum toxin or phenol injections in the muscles.

Electromyography and then an acceleromyography can be used for neuromuscular monitoring in general anesthesia with neuromuscular blocking drugs, to avoid post-operative residual curarization (PORC, for its acronym in English).

Except in the case of some purely primary myopathic conditions, electromyography is usually performed with another electrodiagnostic medicine test that measures the nerve’s conduction function.

Needle electromyography and nerve conduction studies are usually indicated when there is pain in the extremities, weakness of the spinal nerve compression or concern for some other injury or neurological disorder.

Spinal nerve injury does not cause cervical, lumbar or lumbar pain, and for this reason, the evidence has not shown that electromyography or nerve conduction studies are useful for diagnosing causes of axial low back pain, chest pain or pain in the spine cervical.

Needle electromyography can help with the diagnosis of compression or nerve injury (such as carpal tunnel syndrome ), nerve root injury (such as sciatica), and other muscle or nerve problems.

Less common medical conditions include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, and muscular dystrophy.


Skin preparation and risks

The first step before the insertion of the needle electrode is the preparation of the skin. This usually involves simply cleaning the skin with an alcohol pad.

The actual placement of the needle electrode can be difficult and depends on several factors, such as the specific muscle selection and the size of that muscle.

Proper placement of needle electromyography is very important for accurate representation of the muscle of interest, although electromyography is more effective in superficial muscles because it is unable to bypass the action potentials of the superficial muscles and detect deeper muscles.

In addition, the more body fat an individual has, the weaker the electromyography signal.

When placing the electromyography sensor, the ideal location is in the belly of the muscle: the longitudinal midline. The belly of the muscle can also be considered as between the motor point (center) of the muscle and the point of insertion of the tendon.

Cardiac pacemakers and implanted cardiac defibrillators (ICDs) are increasingly used in clinical practice, and there is no evidence to suggest that carrying out routine electrodiagnostic studies in patients with these devices represents a risk to safety.

However, there are theoretical concerns that electrical impulses from nerve conduction studies (NCS) can be mistakenly detected by devices and result in unintended inhibition or triggering of output or reprogramming of the device .

In general, the closer the stimulation site of the pacemaker and the stimulation leads, the greater the possibility of inducing a voltage of sufficient amplitude to inhibit the pacemaker.

Despite these concerns, no immediate or late adverse effects have been reported with routine nerve conduction studies.

There are no known contraindications to perform needle electromyography or nerve conduction studies in pregnant patients. In addition, no complications of these procedures were reported in the literature.

Neither has it been reported that the evoked potential test causes problems when performed during pregnancy.

Patients with lymphedema or patients at risk of lymphedema are cautioned to avoid percutaneous procedures in the affected limb, such as venipuncture, to prevent the development or worsening of lymphedema or cellulitis .

Despite the potential risk, evidence of such complications after venous puncture is limited. There are no published reports of cellulitis, infection or other complications related to electromyography performed in the context of lymphedema or previous dissection of lymph nodes.

However, given the unknown risk of cellulitis in patients with lymphedema, reasonable caution should be exercised when performing needle scans in lymphedematous regions to avoid complications.

In patients with macroscopic edema and tight skin, puncture of the skin with needle electrodes can cause a chronic cry of serous fluid.

The potential bacterial media of said serous fluid and the violation of the integrity of the skin may increase the risk of cellulitis. Before continuing, the doctor must weigh the potential risks of conducting the study with the need to obtain the information obtained.

Surface and intramuscular electromyography electrodes

There are two types of electromyography : surface electromyography and intramuscular electromyography. Surface electromyography evaluates muscle function by recording muscle activity from the surface on the muscle of the skin.

The surface electrodes are able to provide only a limited assessment of muscle activity. Surface electromyography can be recorded by a pair of electrodes or by a more complex array of multiple electrodes.

More than one electrode is needed because the electromyographic recordings show the potential difference (voltage difference) between two separate electrodes.

The limitations of this approach are the fact that the records of surface electrodes are restricted to superficial muscles, are influenced by the depth of the subcutaneous tissue at the registry site that can be very variable depending on the weight of the patient and can not reliably discriminate discharges of adjacent muscles.

Intramuscular electromyography can be performed using a variety of different types of recording electrodes. The simplest approach is a monopolar needle electrode.

This can be a thin wire inserted into a muscle with a surface electrode as a reference; or two thin threads inserted in the muscle referenced together. Most fine wire recordings are for research studies or kinesiology.

The monopolar diagnostic electromyography electrodes are typically isolated and rigid enough to penetrate the skin, with only the tip exposed using a surface electrode as a reference.

The needles for injecting botulinum toxin or phenol are typically monopolar electrodes using a surface reference, in this case, however, the metallic axis of a hypodermic needle, isolated so that only the tip is exposed, is used both to record signals as to inject.

A slightly more complex design is the concentric needle electrode. These needles have a thin wire, embedded in an insulating layer that fills the barrel of a hypodermic needle, which has an exposed axis, and the shaft serves as the reference electrode. The exposed tip of the fine wire serves as the active electrode.

As a result of this configuration, the signals tend to be smaller when they are recorded from a concentric electrode than when they are recorded from a monopolar electrode and are more resistant to electrical artefacts of the tissue and the measurements tend to be somewhat more reliable.

However, because the axis is exposed throughout its length, superficial muscle activity can contaminate the deeper muscle register.

The single-fiber electromyography needle electrodes are designed to have very small recording areas, and allow discrimination of individual muscle fiber discharges.

To perform an intramuscular electromyography, a concentric or monopolar needle electrode is typically inserted through the skin into the muscle tissue.

The needle then moves to multiple points within a relaxed muscle to assess both insertion activity and rest activity in the muscle.

Normal muscles exhibit a brief burst of muscle fiber activation when stimulated by the movement of the needle, but this rarely lasts more than 100 ms.

The two most common pathological types of resting activity in the muscle are the potentials for fasciculation and fibrillation.

A fasciculation potential is the involuntary activation of a motor unit within the muscle, sometimes visible to the naked eye as a muscle contraction or surface electrodes.

However, fibrillations are only detected by needle electromyography and represent the isolated activation of individual muscle fibers, usually as a result of nerve or muscle disease.

Often, fibrillations are triggered by the movement of the needle (insertion activity) and persist for several seconds or more after movement ceases.

After evaluating rest and insertion activity, the electromyograph evaluates muscle activity during voluntary contraction. The shape, size and frequency of the resulting electrical signals are evaluated.

Then, the electrode retracts a few millimeters and the activity is analyzed again. This is repeated, sometimes until data of 10-20 motor units are collected to draw conclusions about the function of the motor unit.

Single fiber electromyography evaluates the delay between contractions of individual muscle fibers within a motor unit and is a sensitive test for dysfunction of the neuromuscular junction caused by drugs, poisons or diseases such as myasthenia gravis.

The technique is complicated and usually only performed by individuals with special advanced training.

A review of the literature on surface electromyography published in 2008 concluded that surface electromyography can be useful for detecting the presence of neuromuscular disease (classification of level C, class III data), but there is insufficient data to support its usefulness for distinguish between neuropathic and neuropathic.

Myopathic conditions or for the diagnosis of specific neuromuscular diseases. Electromyography may be useful for the additional study of fatigue associated with post-poliomyelitis syndrome and electromechanical function in myotonic dystrophy (level C classification, class III data).

Certain states of the USA UU They limit the performance of needle electromyography by non-physicians. New Jersey stated that you can not delegate to a medical assistant. Michigan passed legislation that says needle electromyography is the practice of medicine.

Special training is required in the diagnosis of medical diseases with electromyography only in residency and fraternity programs in neurology, clinical neurophysiology, neuromuscular medicine and physical medicine and rehabilitation.

There are certain subspecialists in otolaryngology who have received selective training in the electromyography of the laryngeal muscles and subspecialists in urology, obstetrics and gynecology who have had selective training in the electromyography of the muscles that control bowel function and the bladder.

Maximum voluntary contraction

A basic function of electromyography is to see how well a muscle can be activated. The most common form that can be determined is making a maximum voluntary contraction (CVM) of the muscle being evaluated.

Muscle strength, which is measured mechanically, typically correlates highly with measures of electromyographic muscle activation.

Most commonly, this is evaluated with surface electrodes, but it should be recognized that these typically only record the muscle fibers in close proximity to the surface.

Several analytical methods to determine muscle activation are commonly used depending on the application. The use of average electromyographic activation or the maximum contraction value is a debated issue.

Most studies commonly use maximal voluntary contraction as a means to analyze the peak force and force generated by the target muscles.

According to the article, peak and average rectified electromyography measurements: What method of data reduction should be used to evaluate core training exercises?

They concluded that the “average rectified electromyographic data (ARV) is significantly less variable when measuring core muscle activity.”

Accordingly, these investigators would suggest that “ARV electromyography data should be recorded along with the maximum electromyography measurement when evaluating core exercises.”

Providing the reader with both sets of data would result in greater validity of the study and potentially eradicate the contradictions within the research.

Other measures

Electromyography can also be used to indicate the amount of fatigue in a muscle.

The following changes in the electromyography signal can mean muscle fatigue: an increase in the mean absolute value of the signal, increase in the amplitude and duration of the muscle action potential, and a general change at lower frequencies.

Monitoring changes of different frequencies changes the most common way to use electromyography to determine fatigue levels. Lower driving speeds allow the slower motor neurons to remain active.

A motor unit is defined as a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it innervates. When a motor unit fires, the impulse (called action potential) is transported by the motor neuron to the muscle.

The nerve conduction test is also often performed at the same time as an electromyography to diagnose neurological diseases.

Decomposition of the electromyography signal

The electromyography signals are essentially composed of overlapping motor unit action potentials (MUAPs) of several motor units.

For a complete analysis, the measured electromyography signals can be decomposed into the action potentials of their constituent motor unit.

The action potentials of the motor unit of different motor units tend to have different characteristic shapes, while the action potentials of the motor unit recorded by the same electrode of the same motor unit are typically similar.

Notably, the potential and action of the action of the motor unit depends on where the electrode is located with respect to the fibers and, therefore, may look different if the electrode moves.

Electromyographic decomposition is not trivial, although many methods have been proposed.

Processing of electromyography signals

Rectification is the translation of the raw electromyography signal to a single polarity frequency (generally positive).

The goal of rectifying a signal is to ensure that the raw signal does not average zero, because the raw electromyography signal has both positive and negative components.

The two types of signal rectification refer to what happens with the electromyography wave when it is processed. These types include the frequency of full length and half the length.

The full-length frequency adds the electromyography signal below the baseline (usually negative polarity) to the signal above the baseline, making a conditioned signal that is all positive.

This is the preferred method of rectification because it conserves all signal energy for analysis, usually in positive polarity. The half-length rectification removes the electromyography signal below the baseline.

By doing so, the average of the data is no longer zero, therefore, it can be used in statistical analysis. The only difference between the two types of rectification is that the full-wave rectification takes the absolute value of the signal matrix of data points


Needle electromyography used in clinical settings has practical applications, such as helping to discover diseases.

However, needle electromyography has limitations, since it involves the voluntary activation of the muscle and, as such, is less informative in patients who do not wish to cooperate, children and babies, and in individuals with paralysis.

Surface electromyography may have limited applications due to inherent problems associated with surface electromyography. Adipose tissue (fat) can affect electromyographic recordings.

Studies show that as the adipose tissue increased, the active muscle directly below the surface decreased.

As the adipose tissue increased, the amplitude of the surface electromyography signal directly above the center of the active muscle decreased.

The recordings of electromyography signals are usually more accurate with individuals who have less body fat and more docile skin, such as young people compared to the elderly.

Muscle cross-communication occurs when the electromyographic signal of a muscle interferes with that of another limiting reliability of the muscle signal being tested. Surface electromyography is limited due to the lack of reliability of the deep muscles.

Deep muscles require intramuscular cables that are intrusive and painful to achieve an electromyography signal. Surface electromyography can only measure superficial muscles and even then it is difficult to reduce the signal to a single muscle.

Electrical characteristics

The electrical source is the muscle membrane potential of approximately -90mV. The measured electromyography potentials vary between less than 50μV and up to 20 to 30mV, depending on the muscle under observation.

Results of the procedure

Normal results

Resting muscle tissue is usually electrically inactive.

After the electrical activity caused by the irritation of the needle insertion decreases, the electromyograph must not detect any abnormal spontaneous activity (ie, a muscle at rest must be electrically silent, with the exception of the area of ​​the neuromuscular junction, which is, under normal circumstances, very spontaneously active).

When the muscle contracts voluntarily, the action potentials begin to appear. As the strength of muscle contraction increases, more and more muscle fibers produce action potentials.

When the muscle is fully contracted, a disordered group of action potentials of different rates and amplitudes should appear (a complete pattern of recruitment and interference).

Abnormal results

The electromyographic findings vary according to the type of disorder, the duration of the problem, the age of the patient, the degree of cooperation of the patient, the type of needle electrode used to study the patient and the sampling error in terms of the number of areas studied. within a single muscle and the amount of muscles studied in general.

The interpretation of electromyographic findings is generally best performed by an individual informed by a focused history and a physical examination of the patient, and together with the results of other relevant diagnostic studies performed, including nerve conduction studies.

But also, as appropriate, imaging studies such as magnetic resonance and ultrasound, muscle and nerve biopsy, muscle enzymes and serological studies.


The first documented experiments on electromyography began with the works of Francesco Redi in 1666. Redi discovered a highly specialized muscle of electricity generated by electric ray fishes (electric eel).

In 1773, Walsh had been able to prove that the muscle tissue of the eel fish could generate a spark of electricity.

In 1792, a publication entitled De Viribus Electricitatis appeared in Motu Musculari Commentarius, written by Luigi Galvani , in which the author demonstrated that electricity could initiate muscle contraction.

Six decades later, in 1849, Emil du Bois-Reymond discovered that it was also possible to record electrical activity during a voluntary muscular contraction.

The first real recording of this activity was made by Marey in 1890, who also introduced the term electromyography. In 1922, Gasser and Erlanger used an oscilloscope to show the electrical signals of the muscles.

Due to the stochastic nature of the myoelectric signal, only approximate information of its observation could be obtained.

The ability to detect electromyographic signals improved steadily from the 1930s to the 1950s, and researchers began using improved electrodes more widely for the study of muscles.

The American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine was formed in 1953 as one of several currently active medical societies with a special interest in promoting science and the clinical use of the technique.

At present, several suitable amplifiers are commercially available. In the early eighties, cables appeared that produced signals in the desired microvolt range.

It is used diagnostically by walking laboratories and by doctors trained in the use of biological feedback or ergonomic assessment.

The electromyograph is also used in many types of research laboratories, including those related to biomechanics, motor control, neuromuscular physiology, movement disorders, postural control and physiotherapy.