Changes in multifidus and abdominal muscle size in response to microgravity: possible implications for low back pain research

Eur Spine J. 2016 May;25 Suppl 1:175-82. doi: 10.1007/s00586-015-4311-5. Epub 2015 Nov 18.


Purpose: In microgravity, muscle atrophy occurs in the intrinsic muscles of the spine, with changes also observed in the abdominal muscles. Exercises are undertaken on the International Space Station and on Earth following space flight to remediate these effects. Similar effects have been seen on Earth in prolonged bed rest studies and in people with low back pain (LBP). The aim of this case report was to examine the effects of microgravity, exercise in microgravity and post-flight rehabilitation on the size of the multifidus and antero-lateral abdominal muscles.

Methods: Ultrasound imaging was used to assess size of the multifidus, transversus abdominis and internal oblique muscles at four time points: pre-flight and after daily rehabilitation on day one (R + 1), day 8 (R + 8) and day 14 (R + 14) after return to Earth (following 6 months in microgravity).

Results: Exercises in microgravity maintained multifidus size at L2-L4, however, after spaceflight, size of the multifidus muscle at L5 was reduced, size of the internal oblique muscle was increased and size of transversus abdominis was reduced. Rehabilitation post-space flight resulted in hypertrophy of the multifidus muscle to pre-mission size at the L5 vertebral level and restoration of antero-lateral abdominal muscle size.

Conclusions: Exercise in space can prevent loss of spinal intrinsic muscle size. For the multifidus muscles, effectiveness varied at different levels of the spine. Post-mission rehabilitation targeting specific motor control restored muscle balance between the antero-lateral abdominal and multifidus muscles, similar to results from intervention trials for people with LBP. A limitation of the current investigation is that only one astronaut was studied, however, the microgravity model could be valuable as predictable effects on trunk muscles can be induced and interventions evaluated. Level of Evidence Case series.

Keywords: Exercise therapy; Lumbar spine; Paraspinal muscles; Rehabilitation; Trunk muscles; Ultrasound imaging.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Muscles / diagnostic imaging
  • Abdominal Muscles / pathology*
  • Adult
  • Bed Rest / adverse effects
  • Biomedical Research / methods
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Exercise Therapy / methods
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / pathology
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / etiology*
  • Muscular Atrophy / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy / rehabilitation
  • Paraspinal Muscles / diagnostic imaging
  • Paraspinal Muscles / pathology*
  • Space Flight*
  • Ultrasonography
  • Weightlessness / adverse effects*