No matter where you do your rotations or practice physical therapy, you are bound to work with both people who target the VMO with their interventions and people who think it's impossible to do so. Following trauma, knee surgery, or patellofemoral pain syndrome, many practitioners claim selective atrophy and weakness of the VMO relative to the rest of the quadriceps. This becomes a focus of several interventions in the patient's care plan. Due to the controversial state of this case, we thought we would do a review on the isolation of the vastus medialis muscle. Let's start out with reviewing a little anatomy. The quadriceps is made up of four parts: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
Rectus Femoris Origin:
-Anteroinferior iliac spine (straight head), groove above rim of acetabulum (reflected head)
Vastus Lateralis Origin:
-Proximal part of intertrochanteric line, anterior and inferior borders of greater trochanter, lateral lip of the gluteal tuberosity, proximal half of lateral lip of linea aspera, and lateral intermuscular septum
Vastus Intermedius Origin:
-Anterior and lateral surfaces of the proximal 2/3 of the body of the femur, distal half of the linea aspera, and lateral intermuscular septum
Vastus Medialis Origin:
-Distal half of the intertrochanteric line, medial lip of the linea aspera, proximal part of the medial supracondylar line, tendons of the adductor longus and adductor magnus and medial intermuscular septum
-Proximal border of the patella and through the patellar ligament to the tuberosity of the tibia
-Femoral nerve (L2-4)
-Extends the knee (rectus femoris also flexes the hip)
*(Kendall et al, 2005)
One way of analyzing this controversial issue is anatomically. Hubbard et al reviewed the anatomy of cadavers to enhance the interpretation of VMO isolation. The vastus medialis is commonly broken down into two components: vastus medialis longus (VML) and vastus medialis oblique (VMO). It is thought that the VMO is responsible for medial patellar tracking, due to its oblique fiber orientation. In the study, the VMO was unable to be found separated from the VML, meaning the VMO was not found to be a muscle independently. Any attempted separation required destruction of muscle fibers. Upon review of innervation, many studies in the past have come across independent innervation, leading to the hypothesis that the VMO was a separate muscle. However, these nerves have been found to be superficial separations from the femoral nerve leading to distal motor units, sensory contribution from the saphenous nerve, or penetrating innervation for the knee capsule. The authors argue that without isolated innervation, the VMO cannot be activated independently (the patella cannot solely be pulled medially); it is the activity of the femoral nerve the stimulates the entire vastus medialis to contract and extend the knee while pulling the patella medially.
Historically, many people were under the impression that the rectus femoris was the prime knee extensor. They thought the vastus medialis was responsible for the final 15 degrees of knee extension due to the inadequacies of the rectus femoris (Lieb & Perry, 1968). Boucher et al looked at the vastus medialis activity in patients with patellofemoral pain syndrome. They found that the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis were not more active in terminal extension. However, they did find that in patients with PFPS, there was a decreased VM:VL ratio compared to the control group. These differences were found to be attributable to a mechanical disadvantage (greater Q-angle); when the Q-angle was decreased, the ratio returned to normal. This same difference in VM and VL ratio was found in another study to be related to mechanical factors as well (Souza & Gross, 2001). Additionally, the authors discovered that isotonic quadriceps contractions elicited larger VM:VL EMG activity compared to isometric contractions. This may influence the treatment plan for patients with pathologies, such as patellofemoral pain syndrome. Ng et al. and Cowan et al. also came across this difference in VM and VL ratio with EMG activity. In fact, the authors were able to normalize the EMG activity with use of therapeutic exercise + biofeedback. Biofeedback has been found to be a useful component in motor retraining, especially regarding earlier activation of the VMO (Cowan et al., 2002). A delay of as little as 5 ms of the VMO relative to the VL can increase the compression forces on the lateral patellafemoral joint (Boling et al, 2006). Powers described a difference between VM and VL activity as well; however, it was attributed to patellar malalignment. Decreased VM activity was not found to be the cause of abnormal patellar tracking or patellar tilt.
As it has probably become obvious, VMO isolation is a controversial issue with many conflicting studies. Thein Brody & Hall do an excellent job summarizing the research, while offering their own opinion. Regarding measuring EMG amplitude, they point out that EMG measures electrical activity, not force production. To truly assess the effects the VMO has on the patella, one must consider fiber orientation, and cross-sectional area. The authors then return back to an anatomical discussion, stating an isolated VMO contraction has never been displayed. This suggests training the VMO independently to improve timing may not be possible. In fact, VMO:VL timing has been shown to improve after training the quadriceps muscle as a whole.
So what are your thoughts and what have your experiences been on this issue? Should we be spending so much time trying to isolate the VMO for rehabilitation or focus on a more general method? Let us know!
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