Multifidus – Smallest Yet Most Powerful Muscle
What is mutlifidus?
The multifidus muscle is one of the smallest yet most “powerful” muscle that gives support to the spine. Most people have the misconception that small is insignificant but it is not the case when it comes to this particular muscle.
Multifidus muscle is a series of muscles that are attached to the spinal column. These series of muscles are further divided into two groups which include the superficial muscle group and the deep muscle group.
What do the multifidus muscles do?
The multifidus muscles help to take pressure off the vertebral discs so that our body weight can be well distributed along the spine. Additionally, the superficial muscle group keeps our spine straight while the deep muscle group contributes significantly to the stability of our spine. These two groups of multifidus muscles are recruited during many actions in our daily living, which includes bending backward, sideways and even turning our body to the sides. Studies have shown that the multifidus muscles get activated before any action is carried out so to protect our spine from injury. Take for example when you are about to carry an item or before moving your arm, the mutifidus muscles will start contracting prior to the actual movement of the body and the arm so as to prepare the spine for the movement and prevent it from getting hurt.
In recent years, many studies have been carried out to identify the relationship between back pain and mutifidus. One such study was published in 2002 in the European Spine Journal. The objective of the study was to compare the level of back muscle activity in healthy controls and patients with low back pain during coordination, stabilisation and strength exercises. Electromyographic activities of the back muscles, namely the multifidus muscles and the iliocostalis lumborum were measured when the subjects performed the exercises. The results showed that low back pain subjects, especially those with chronic pain, displayed significantly smaller multifidus muscle activity as compared to healthy subjects during the coordination exercises, indicating that over the long term, back pain patients have a reduced ability to voluntarily recruit the multifidus muscles in order to maintain a neutral spine position. Also, with strength exercises, subjects with chronic low back pain had significantly lower multifidus muscle activity as compared to healthy subjects. Possible explanations for this finding could be due to pain, pain avoidance and deconditioning leading to reduced multifidus activity. Hence, as you can imagine, when multifidus function is poor, one will be more susceptible to back injuries.
So what do we do next?
After understanding the important role of multifidus which contributes to good back health, it is wise to start giving more attention to your “small yet powerful” multifidus muscle. Doing some simple yet functional exercises will help to strengthen your back muscle especially for people with spinal disorders or those who have gone through spinal surgery.
Step 1: Lie on your side with your spine in a neutral posture.
Step 2: Locate the multifidus muscle. Reach for your back and with your top hand, place three to four fingers across the side of your spine at waistline. The multifidus muscle can be palpated or felt here.
Step 3: Isolate and contract the multifidus muscle. Breathe in and on breath out, contract the multifidus by imagining that you are drawing your thigh into the pelvis. There should be no actual movement of the hips, pelvis or spine. The contraction of the multifidus should feel like a slow, firm ‘swelling’ or ‘bulging’ underneath your fingers.
Once you are able to isolate and contract your multifidus, you can practice it in many different positions, such as in sitting, standing or bending. You can also progress with arm movements like raising one arm forward and upward while maintaining the multifidus activation.
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- Danneels et. al. Differences in electromyographic activity in the multifidus muscle and iliocostalis lumborum between healthy subjects and patients with sub-acute and chronic low back pain. European Spine Journal. 2002; 11:13-19.