Background: As hyperactive muscle stretch reflexes hinder movement in patients with central nervous system disorders, they are a common target of treatment. To improve treatment evaluation, hyperactive reflexes should be assessed during activities as walking rather than passively. This study systematically explores the feasibility, reliability and validity of sudden treadmill perturbations to evoke and quantify calf muscle stretch reflexes during walking in children with neurological disorders. Methods: We performed an observational cross-sectional study including 24 children with cerebral palsy (CP; 6–16 years) and 14 typically developing children (TD; 6–15 years). Short belt accelerations were applied at three different intensities while children walked at comfortable speed. Lower leg kinematics, musculo-tendon lengthening and velocity, muscle activity and spatiotemporal parameters were measured to analyze perturbation responses. Results: We first demonstrated protocol feasibility: the protocol was completed by all but three children who ceased participation due to fatigue. All remaining children were able to maintain their gait pattern during perturbation trials without anticipatory adaptations in ankle kinematics, spatiotemporal parameters and muscle activity. Second, we showed the protocol’s reliability: there was no systematic change in muscle response over time (P = 0.21–0.54) and a bootstrapping procedure indicated sufficient number of perturbations, as the last perturbation repetition only reduced variability by ~ 2%. Third, we evaluated construct validity by showing that responses comply with neurophysiological criteria for stretch reflexes: perturbations superimposed calf muscle lengthening (P < 0.001 for both CP and TD) in all but one participant. This elicited increased calf muscle activity (359 ± 190% for CP and 231 ± 68% for TD, both P < 0.001) in the gastrocnemius medialis muscle, which increased with perturbation intensity (P < 0.001), according to the velocity-dependent nature of stretch reflexes. Finally, construct validity was shown from a clinical perspective: stretch reflexes were 1.7 times higher for CP than TD for the gastrocnemius medialis muscle (P = 0.017). Conclusions: The feasibility and reliability of the protocol, as well as the construct validity—shown by the exaggerated velocity-dependent nature of the measured responses—strongly support the use of treadmill perturbations to quantify stretch hyperreflexia during gait. We therefore provided a framework which can be used to inform clinical decision making and treatment evaluation.
- Cerebral palsy
- Stretch hyperreflexia