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Motor unit recruitment is the progressive activation of a muscle by successive recruitment of contractile units (motor units) to accomplish increasing gradations of contractile strength. A motor unit consists of one motor neuron and all of the muscle fibres it contracts. All muscles consist of a number of motor units and the fibers belonging to a motor unit are dispersed and intermingle amongst fibers of other units. The muscle fibers belonging to one motor unit can be spread throughout part, or most of the entire muscle, depending on the number of fibers and size of the muscle. When a motor neuron is activated, all of the muscle fibers innervated by the motor neuron are stimulated and contract. The activation of one motoneuron will result in a weak but distributed muscle contraction. The activation of more motor neurons will result in more muscle fibers being activated, and therefore a stronger muscle contraction. Motor unit recruitment is the principle that the more motor neurons are activated, the stronger the muscle contraction will be. Motor units are generally recruited in order of smallest to largest (fewest fibres to most fibres) as contraction increases. This is known as "Henneman's Size Principle".
In medical electrodiagnostic testing for a patient with weakness, careful analysis of the "motor unit action potential" (MUAP) size, shape, and recruitment pattern can help in distinguishing a myopathy from a neuropathy.
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