The multifidus muscle supports the spine and is an essential muscle in the back for providing strength despite its small size. Lumbar pain is a common condition, and multifidus exercises may be able to help provide some relief.
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What Is the Multifidus?
Stabilization is the main job of the multifidus, which is a thin muscle that spans three joint segments and stabilizes them at each level, according to a July 2013 article published in Journal of Physical Therapy Science. As the name suggests, the multifidus is made of multiple muscles that are attached to the spinal column. The multifidus is divided into two groups of muscles, the superficial and the deep muscle groups.
Since the vertebrae are necessarily mobile, providing the necessary movement needed in human physiology, the multifidus provides stability to help keep the vertebrae strong and healthy, preventing degeneration of the joints, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
The lumbar multifidus works with the transverse abdominis and pelvic floor muscles stabilizers for the low back and pelvis for your limbs to move freely while maintaining the stability of your trunk. When your lumbar multifidus is injured, you may feel referred pain along adjacent vertebrae or into the side of your abdominals, according to a January 2018 Neuromodulation article.
3 Multifidus Exercises at Home
Core strength and stability are critical for lumbar multifidus health. The core acts as a unit and dysfunction due to tightness or muscle shortening and lengthening in other areas of the body such as the quadriceps and hamstrings can contribute to low back pain, according to Princeton University Athletic Medicine.
Your core contains several groups of muscles including the multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor and transverse abdominis. Engaging these muscles as a unit will help provide maximum stability for your spine to reduce lower back pain and increase stability.
Princeton University Athletic Medicine recommends hip flexibility exercises for the muscles of the hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes to relieve low back pain. These exercises include quadriceps stretch, hip flexor stretch, adductor stretch, hamstring stretch, dynamic hamstring stretch, side-lying IT band stretch, C stretch for IT band and glute stretch. The following multifidus stretch is provided by Princeton University.
Move 1: Prayer, Cat, Camel
- Get on the floor on all fours with your knees stacked under your hips and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, fingertips facing forward.
- For the prayer phase, exhale as you sit back onto your heels, lowering your head and tucking your chin under while reaching your arms out. This pose is often called child's pose.
- For the cat phase, inhale and arch your back up while hollowing out your abdominals by drying your belly button into your spine. Keep your chin tucked.
- For the camel phase, exhale again as you lower your abdominal and extend your chin towards the ceiling. Sit back into prayer position while tucking in your chin again.
- Repeat the sequence five times.
The following multifidus strengthening exercises are also provided by Princeton University Athletic Medicine.
Move 2: Prone Bridge on Elbows
- Lie on the floor on your stomach and place your forearms on the floor. Raise your hips so that your forearms and toes support you.
- Maintain a stiff core and straight back.
- Hold yourself in this position for between 15 seconds, progressing by 15 seconds for each rep, up to one minute.
- Perform five to 10 repetitions.
Move 3: Quadruped Opposite Arm/Leg
- Get onto the floor on all fours with your knees stacked under your hips and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, fingers and palms facing forward.
- Engage your core and keep a straight back while using your hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles to lift one leg straight off the ground behind you while lifting your opposite arm at the same time — lower back to the starting position.
- Repeat for 10 repetitions on each side.
Always consult your physician or athletic trainer if you have back pain that lasts longer than one to two weeks. Your physician can diagnose you and will be able to tell you what part of your back is injured so that your physical therapist or athletic trainer can best recommend exercises that work for you and your specific condition.
Be sure to consult a medical professional before you begin this program or any other. And as always, never try to work past pain when exercising.
Read more: How to Loosen Up a Tight & Sore Lower Back
Multifidus Exercises Can Relieve Pain
A May 2014 article published in the Journal of Radiology Case Reports discusses a small case series in which chronic low back pain was connected to multifidus muscle atrophy. In this study, low back exercises targeting the multifidus where prescribed. A follow-up scan completed on the subjects over a year later compared patients who performed multifidus focus low back exercises to a patient who only underwent spinal manipulation and did not exercise.
Those who completed the multifidus exercises were shown to have a decrease in muscle atrophy, whereas the patient who underwent spinal manipulation alone had an increase in muscle atrophy. The decline in muscle atrophy also correlated with better functioning. These results indicate that an exercise program, including multifidus exercises, can help with recovery in patients with chronic low back pain. However, because this report discusses only a few results, more research is needed.
When treating the multifidus muscles as stabilizers of your core, you need to learn to use your multifidus muscles concurrently with the other muscles in your core. A physical therapist or other health care professional will be able to help you with this by providing treatment and exercises.
A review published in a March 2015 issue of the Journal of Physical Therapy Science reveals that specific supervised in-home exercises might improve the symmetry of the multifidus muscle and, in doing so, can help relieve symptoms of lower back pain.
The review says that subjects who suffer from lower back pain typically show continuous activation of the lumbar multifidus muscle, including atrophy and reduced activity, as well as the muscle fibers transforming from type I to type IIc. Recovering the muscle activation of the multifidus is imperative for regaining the optimal functioning of the lumbar muscles and the entire core.
Another January 2018 study published in the Journal of Pain & Relief states that a 12-week lumbar stabilization exercise program was shown to decrease lower back pain and disability for more than two months after the completion of the program.
- Neuromodulation: "Muscle Control and Non‐Specific Chronic Low Back Pain"
- Journal of Radiology Case Reports: "Long-Term Lumbar Multifidus Muscle Atrophy Changes Documented With Magnetic Resonance Imaging: A Case Series"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Exercise and Tropism of the Multifidus Muscle in Low Back Pain: A Short Review"
- Journal of Pain & Relief: "Effects of a Twelve-Week Program of Lumbar-Stabilization Exercises on Multifidus Muscles, Isokinetic Peak Torque and Pain for Women With Chronic Low Back Pain"
- Princeton University Athletic Medicine: "Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises"
- University of Maryland Medical Center: "A Patient's Guide to Anatomy and Function of the Spine"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "The Intervention Effects of Different Treatment for Chronic Low Back Pain as Assessed by the Cross-sectional Area of the Multifidus Muscle"