Often as a physical therapist, I get the question “What is the difference between muscle tone and muscle strength?”
I’ve decided to put together a fact sheet for easy distinction of the differences so you, as a parent, can better understand your child.
What Is Muscle Tone?
Muscle tone is defined as the tension in a muscle at rest.
It is the muscle’s response to an outside force, such as a stretch or change in direction.
Appropriate muscle tone enables our bodies to quickly respond to a stretch.
For example, if someone took your arm and quickly straighten your elbow, your biceps muscle would automatically respond and contract in response to protect you from injury.
Low Muscle Tone vs. High Muscle Tone
A child with low tone, or hypotonia, has muscles that are slower to react to a stretch and are unable to sustain a prolonged muscle contraction.
If a hypotonic child’s arm was stretched quickly, the same way as above, there would be minimal to no response of their biceps muscle.
Sometimes the muscles of a child with low tone may feel soft and mushy or they may appear “floppy”.
A child with high tone, or hypertonia, has muscles that are in an “over-reactive” state to stretch and in a state of high tension.
If this child’s arm was stretched, their biceps muscle would react even quicker and may maintain a prolonged contraction.
In everyday movement, there are constant stimuli, so this child may not be able to achieve relaxation of their muscles.
Children with hypertonia are often at risk for a loss of range of motion and orthopedic concerns due to these facts.
What is Muscle Strength?
Muscle strength is defined as the muscle’s ability to contract and create force in response to resistance.
Muscle strength is what your muscles do when they aren’t at rest.
When you purposefully move a muscle, your brain is sending signals to your muscle fibers to contract.
The power of your contraction is dependent upon your muscle mass which can be changed by weight training and exercise.
So, if we take the example from before with someone stretching your arm out straight, your muscle strength would be the ability to contract and resist that force actively.
In Conclusion, although strength and tone are different when a muscle is not in an ideal position to be ready for contraction, the muscle strength will be impaired.
About the Author
Dr. Christine Astarita, PT, DPT is the founder of Breakthrough Intensive PT; Long Island’s intensive therapy center focused around the whole family. Throughout her career, Christine has worked with children from the NICU all the way into adulthood and knew there had to be a better way to serve them. So, she’s taken her passion and direction in life to serve the special needs community by offering intensive therapy programs, group fitness programs, parent support, and educational programs, as well as sibling support programs to enhance and improve the quality of their lives.
When not working at Breakthrough PT, reading, or researching ways to improve the business, you can find her out with her family hiking the trails or preparing for her next half or full marathon! Christine loves running and believes it to be her method of meditation all while keeping her in shape to eat all of the ice cream and french fries she wants! She believes her true purpose and calling is to help this underserved community in a BIG way.
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