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The sarcolemma acts as a conductor for electrochemical signals that stimulate muscle cells.

Muscular System - Muscles of the Human Body

Connected to the sarcolemma are transverse tubules T-tubules that help carry these electrochemical signals into the middle of the muscle fiber. Myofibrils are made up of many proteins fibers arranged into repeating subunits called sarcomeres. The sarcomere is the functional unit of muscle fibers. See Macronutrients for more information about the roles of sugars and proteins. The main function of the muscular system is movement. Muscles are the only tissue in the body that has the ability to contract and therefore move the other parts of the body.

Muscles often contract to hold the body still or in a particular position rather than to cause movement. Another function related to movement is the movement of substances inside the body. The cardiac and visceral muscles are primarily responsible for transporting substances like blood or food from one part of the body to another. The final function of muscle tissue is the generation of body heat.

As a result of the high metabolic rate of contracting muscle, our muscular system produces a great deal of waste heat. Many small muscle contractions within the body produce our natural body heat. When we exert ourselves more than normal, the extra muscle contractions lead to a rise in body temperature and eventually to sweating. Skeletal muscles work together with bones and joints to form lever systems. The muscle acts as the effort force; the joint acts as the fulcrum; the bone that the muscle moves acts as the lever; and the object being moved acts as the load.

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There are three classes of levers, but the vast majority of the levers in the body are third class levers. A third class lever is a system in which the fulcrum is at the end of the lever and the effort is between the fulcrum and the load at the other end of the lever. The third class levers in the body serve to increase the distance moved by the load compared to the distance that the muscle contracts. The tradeoff for this increase in distance is that the force required to move the load must be greater than the mass of the load.

For example, the biceps brachia of the arm pulls on the radius of the forearm, causing flexion at the elbow joint in a third class lever system. A very slight change in the length of the biceps causes a much larger movement of the forearm and hand, but the force applied by the biceps must be higher than the load moved by the muscle. Nerve cells called motor neurons control the skeletal muscles. Each motor neuron controls several muscle cells in a group known as a motor unit. When a motor neuron receives a signal from the brain, it stimulates all of the muscles cells in its motor unit at the same time.

The size of motor units varies throughout the body, depending on the function of a muscle. Muscles that need a lot of strength to perform their function—like leg or arm muscles—have many muscle cells in each motor unit. One of the ways that the body can control the strength of each muscle is by determining how many motor units to activate for a given function. This explains why the same muscles that are used to pick up a pencil are also used to pick up a bowling ball.

Muscles contract when stimulated by signals from their motor neurons. Motor neurons release neurotransmitter chemicals at the NMJ that bond to a special part of the sarcolemma known as the motor end plate. The motor end plate contains many ion channels that open in response to neurotransmitters and allow positive ions to enter the muscle fiber. The positive ions form an electrochemical gradient to form inside of the cell, which spreads throughout the sarcolemma and the T-tubules by opening even more ion channels. Tropomyosin is moved away from myosin binding sites on actin molecules, allowing actin and myosin to bind together.

ATP molecules power myosin proteins in the thick filaments to bend and pull on actin molecules in the thin filaments. Myosin proteins act like oars on a boat, pulling the thin filaments closer to the center of a sarcomere. As the thin filaments are pulled together, the sarcomere shortens and contracts. Myofibrils of muscle fibers are made of many sarcomeres in a row, so that when all of the sarcomeres contract, the muscle cells shortens with a great force relative to its size.

Muscles continue contraction as long as they are stimulated by a neurotransmitter. When a motor neuron stops the release of the neurotransmitter, the process of contraction reverses itself. Calcium returns to the sarcoplasmic reticulum; troponin and tropomyosin return to their resting positions; and actin and myosin are prevented from binding. Sarcomeres return to their elongated resting state once the force of myosin pulling on actin has stopped.

Anatomy and physiology of human organs

Certain conditions or disorders, such as myoclonus, can affect the normal contraction of muscles. You can learn about musculoskeletal health problems in our section devoted to diseases and conditions.

Also, learn more about advances in DNA health testing that help us understand genetic risk of developing early-onset primary dystonia. A single nerve impulse of a motor neuron will cause a motor unit to contract briefly before relaxing. This small contraction is known as a twitch contraction. If the motor neuron provides several signals within a short period of time, the strength and duration of the muscle contraction increases.

This phenomenon is known as temporal summation.


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If the motor neuron provides many nerve impulses in rapid succession, the muscle may enter the state of tetanus, or complete and lasting contraction. A muscle will remain in tetanus until the nerve signal rate slows or until the muscle becomes too fatigued to maintain the tetanus. Not all muscle contractions produce movement.


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  • Isometric contractions are light contractions that increase the tension in the muscle without exerting enough force to move a body part. When people tense their bodies due to stress, they are performing an isometric contraction.

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    Holding an object still and maintaining posture are also the result of isometric contractions. A contraction that does produce movement is an isotonic contraction. Isotonic contractions are required to develop muscle mass through weight lifting. Muscle tone is a natural condition in which a skeletal muscle stays partially contracted at all times. All muscles maintain some amount of muscle tone at all times, unless the muscle has been disconnected from the central nervous system due to nerve damage.

    Skeletal muscle fibers can be divided into two types based on how they produce and use energy: Type I and Type II. Muscles get their energy from different sources depending on the situation that the muscle is working in. Muscles use aerobic respiration when we call on them to produce a low to moderate level of force. Aerobic respiration requires oxygen to produce about ATP molecules from a molecule of glucose. Aerobic respiration is very efficient, and can continue as long as a muscle receives adequate amounts of oxygen and glucose to keep contracting.

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    When we use muscles to produce a high level of force, they become so tightly contracted that oxygen carrying blood cannot enter the muscle. This condition causes the muscle to create energy using lactic acid fermentation, a form of anaerobic respiration. Anaerobic respiration is much less efficient than aerobic respiration—only 2 ATP are produced for each molecule of glucose. Muscles quickly tire as they burn through their energy reserves under anaerobic respiration.

    To keep muscles working for a longer period of time, muscle fibers contain several important energy molecules. Editorial team. Paul Schilder. Routledge First Published in Edit this record. Mark as duplicate. Find it on Scholar. Request removal from index. Revision history. This entry has no external links. Add one.

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