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Abstract

Compelling evidence exists that pain may affect the motor system, but it is unclear if different sources of peripheral limb pain exert selective effects on motor control. This systematic review evaluates the effects of experimental (sub)cutaneous pain, joint pain, muscle pain and tendon pain on the motor system in healthy humans. The results show that pain affects many components of motor processing at various levels of the nervous system, but that the effects of pain are largely irrespective of its source. Pain is associated with inhibition of muscle activity in the (painful) agonist and its non-painful antagonists and synergists, especially at higher intensities of muscle contraction. Despite the influence of pain on muscle activation, only subtle alterations were found in movement kinetics and kinematics. The performance of various motor tasks mostly remained unimpaired, presumably as a result of a redistribution of muscle activity, both within the (painful) agonist and among muscles involved in the task. At the most basic level of motor control, cutaneous pain caused amplification of the nociceptive withdrawal reflex, whereas insufficient evidence was found for systematic modulation of other spinal reflexes. At higher levels of motor control, pain was associated with decreased corticospinal excitability. Collectively, the findings show that short-lasting experimentally induced limb pain may induce immediate changes at all levels of motor control, irrespective of the source of pain. These changes facilitate protective and compensatory motor behaviour, and are discussed with regard to pertinent models on the effects of pain on motor control.