Electromyography (EMG) is a technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. EMG is performed using an instrument called an electromyograph, to produce a record called an electromyogram. An electromyograph detects the electrical potential generated by muscle cells when these cells are electrically or neurologically activated. The signals can be analyzed to detect medical abnormalities, activation level, recruitment order or to analyze the biomechanics of human or animal movement.
The electrical source is the muscle membrane potential of about -90 mV. Measured EMG potentials range between less than 50 μV and up to 20 to 30 mV, depending on the muscle under observation.
Typical repetition rate of muscle motor unit firing is about 7–20 Hz, depending on the size of the muscle (eye muscles versus seat (gluteal) muscles), previous axonal damage and other factors. Damage to motor units can be expected at ranges between 450 and 780 mV.
The first documented experiments dealing with EMG started with Francesco Redi’s works in 1666. Redi discovered a highly specialized muscle of the electric ray fish (Electric Eel) generated electricity. By 1773, Walsh had been able to demonstrate that the Eel fish’s muscle tissue could generate a spark of electricity. In 1792, a publication entitled De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius appeared, written by Luigi Galvani, in which the author demonstrated that electricity could initiate muscle contractions. Six decades later, in 1849, Emil du Bois-Reymond discovered that it was also possible to record electrical activity during a voluntary muscle contraction. The first actual 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 from muscles. Because of the stochastic nature of the myoelectric signal, only rough information could be obtained from its observation. The capability of detecting electromyographic signals improved steadily from the 1930s through the 1950s, and researchers began to use improved electrodes more widely for the study of muscles. Clinical use of surface EMG (sEMG) for the treatment of more specific disorders began in the 1960s. Hardyck and his researchers were the first (1966) practitioners to use sEMG. In the early 1980s, Cram and Steger introduced a clinical method for scanning a variety of muscles using an EMG sensing device. 
It is not until the middle of the 1980s that integration techniques in electrodes had sufficiently advanced to allow batch production of the required small and lightweight instrumentation and amplifiers. At present, a number of suitable amplifiers are commercially available. In the early 1980s, cables that produced signals in the desired microvolt range became available. Recent research has resulted in a better understanding of the properties of surface EMG recording. Surface electromyography is increasingly used for recording from superficial muscles in clinical or kinesiological protocols, where intramuscular electrodes are used for investigating deep muscles or localized muscle activity.
There are many applications for the use of EMG. EMG is used clinically for the diagnosis of neurological and neuromuscular problems. It is used diagnostically by gait laboratories and by clinicians trained in the use of biofeedback or ergonomic assessment. EMG is also used in many types of research laboratories, including those involved in biomechanics, motor control, neuromuscular physiology, movement disorders, postural control, and physical therapy.
There are two kinds of EMG in widespread use: surface EMG and intramuscular (needle and fine-wire) EMG. To perform intramuscular EMG, a needle electrode or a needle containing two fine-wire electrodes is inserted through the skin into the muscle tissue. A trained professional (such as a neurologist, physiatrist, chiropractor, or physical therapist) observes the electrical activity while inserting the electrode. Certain states limit the performance of needle EMG by nonphysicians including a recent case in New Jersey stating it cannot be delegated to a physician’s assistant. The insertional activity provides valuable information about the state of the muscle and its innervating nerve. Normal muscles at rest make certain, normal electrical signals when the needle is inserted into them. Then the electrical activity when the muscle is at rest is studied. Abnormal spontaneous activity might indicate some nerve and/or muscle damage. Then the patient is asked to contract the muscle smoothly. The shape, size, and frequency of the resulting electrical signals are judged. Then the electrode is retracted a few millimetres, and again the activity is analyzed until at least 10–20 motor units have been collected. Each electrode track gives only a very local picture of the activity of the whole muscle. Because skeletal muscles differ in the inner structure, the electrode has to be placed at various locations to obtain an accurate study.
Intramuscular EMG may be considered too invasive or unnecessary in some cases. Instead, a surface electrode may be used to monitor the general picture of muscle activation, as opposed to the activity of only a few fibres as observed using an intramuscular EMG. This technique is used in a number of settings; for example, in the physiotherapy clinic, muscle activation is monitored using surface EMG and patients have an auditory or visual stimulus to help them know when they are activating the muscle (biofeedback).
A motor unit is defined as one motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it innervates. When a motor unit fires, the impulse (called an action potential) is carried down the motor neuron to the muscle. The area where the nerve contacts the muscle is called the neuromuscular junction, or the motor end plate. After the action potential is transmitted across the neuromuscular junction, an action potential is elicited in all of the innervated muscle fibers of that particular motor unit. The sum of all this electrical activity is known as a motor unit action potential (MUAP). This electrophysiologic activity from multiple motor units is the signal typically evaluated during an EMG. The composition of the motor unit, the number of muscle fibres per motor unit, the metabolic type of muscle fibres and many other factors affect the shape of the motor unit potentials in the myogram.
Nerve conduction testing is also often done at the same time as an EMG to diagnose neurological diseases.
Some patients can find the procedure somewhat painful, whereas others experience only a small amount of discomfort when the needle is inserted. The muscle or muscles being tested may be slightly sore for a day or two after the procedure.
Muscle tissue at rest is normally electrically inactive. After the electrical activity caused by the irritation of needle insertion subsides, the electromyograph should detect no abnormal spontaneous activity (i.e., a muscle at rest should be electrically silent, with the exception of the area of the neuromuscular junction, which is, under normal circumstances, very spontaneously active). When the muscle is voluntarily contracted, action potentials begin to appear. As the strength of the muscle contraction is increased, more and more muscle fibers produce action potentials. When the muscle is fully contracted, there should appear a disorderly group of action potentials of varying rates and amplitudes (a complete recruitment and interference pattern).
EMG is used to diagnose diseases that generally may be classified into one of the following categories: neuropathies, neuromuscular junction diseases and myopathies.
Neuropathic disease has the following defining EMG characteristics:
- An action potential amplitude that is twice normal due to the increased number of fibres per motor unit because of reinnervation of denervated fibres
- An increase in duration of the action potential
- A decrease in the number of motor units in the muscle (as found using motor unit number estimation techniques)
Myopathic disease has these defining EMG characteristics:
- A decrease in duration of the action potential
- A reduction in the area to amplitude ratio of the action potential
- A decrease in the number of motor units in the muscle (in extremely severe cases only)
Because of the individuality of each patient and disease, some of these characteristics may not appear in every case.
EMG signal decomposition
EMG signals are essentially made up of superimposed motor unit action potentials (MUAPs) from several motor units. For a thorough analysis, the measured EMG signals can be decomposed into their constituent MUAPs. MUAPs from different motor units tend to have different characteristic shapes, while MUAPs recorded by the same electrode from the same motor unit are typically similar. Notably MUAP size and shape depend on where the electrode is located with respect to the fibers and so can appear to be different if the electrode moves position. EMG decomposition is non-trivial, although many methods have been proposed.
Applications of EMG
EMG signals are used in many clinical and biomedical applications. EMG is used as a diagnostics tool for identifying neuromuscular diseases, assessing low-back pain, kinesiology, and disorders of motor control. EMG signals are also used as a control signal for prosthetic devices such as prosthetic hands, arms, and lower limbs.
EMG can be used to sense isometric muscular activity where no movement is produced. This enables definition of a class of subtle motionless gestures to control interfaces without being noticed and without disrupting the surrounding environment. These signals can be used to control a prosthesis or as a control signal for an electronic device such as a mobile phone or PDA.