Muscle Contraction - Contractions, By Muscle Type

Contractions, By Muscle Type

For voluntary muscles, all contraction (excluding reflexes) occurs as a result of conscious effort originating in the brain. The brain sends signals, in the form of action potentials, through the nervous system to the motor neuron that innervates several muscle fibers. In the case of some reflexes, the signal to contract can originate in the spinal cord through a feedback loop with the grey matter. Involuntary muscles such as the heart or smooth muscles in the gut and vascular system contract as a result of non-conscious brain activity or stimuli endogenous to the muscle itself. Other actions such as locomotion, breathing, and chewing have a reflex aspect to them: the contractions can be initiated consciously or unconsciously.

There are three general types of muscle tissues:

  • Skeletal muscle responsible for movement
  • Cardiac muscle responsible for pumping blood
  • Smooth muscle responsible for sustained contractions in the blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, and other areas in the body.

Skeletal and cardiac muscles are called striated muscle because of their striped appearance under a microscope, which is due to the highly organized alternating pattern of A band and I band.

While nerve impulse profiles are, for the most part, always the same, skeletal muscles are able to produce varying levels of contractile force. This phenomenon can be best explained by Force Summation. Force Summation describes the addition of individual twitch contractions to increase the intensity of overall muscle contraction. This can be achieved in two ways: by increasing the number and size of contractile units simultaneously, called multiple fiber summation, and by increasing the frequency at which action potentials are sent to muscle fibers, called frequency summation.

  • Multiple fiber summation – When a weak signal is sent by the CNS to contract a muscle, the smaller motor units, being more excitable than the larger ones, are stimulated first. As the strength of the signal increases, more motor units are excited in addition to larger ones, with the largest motor units having as much as 50 times the contractile strength as the smaller ones. As more and larger motor units are activated, the force of muscle contraction becomes progressively stronger. A concept known as the size principle, allows for a gradation of muscle force during weak contraction to occur in small steps, which then become progressively larger when greater amounts of force are required.
  • Frequency summation – For skeletal muscles, the force exerted by the muscle is controlled by varying the frequency at which action potentials are sent to muscle fibers. Action potentials do not arrive at muscles synchronously, and, during a contraction, some fraction of the fibers in the muscle will be firing at any given time. In a typical circumstance, when a human is exerting a muscle as hard as he/she is consciously able, roughly one-third of the fibers in that muscle will be firing at once, though this ratio can be affected by various physiological and psychological factors (including Golgi tendon organs and Renshaw cells). This 'low' level of contraction is a protective mechanism to prevent avulsion of the tendon—the force generated by a 95% contraction of all fibers is sufficient to damage the body.

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