The assessment of abdominal and multifidus muscles and their role in physical function in older adults: a systematic review

Physiotherapy. 2017 Mar;103(1):21-39. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2016 Jun 21.


Background: Age-related changes in the trunk (abdominal and lumbar multifidus) muscles and their impact on physical function of older adults are not clearly understood.

Objectives: To systematically summarise studies of these trunk muscles in older adults.

Data sources: Cochrane Library, Pubmed, EMBASE and CINAHL were searched using terms for abdominal and MF muscles and measurement methods.

Study selection: Two reviewers independently assessed studies and included those reporting measurements of abdominal muscles and/or MF by ultrasound, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging or electromyography of adults aged ≥50 years.

Data synthesis: A best evidence synthesis was performed.

Results: Best evidence synthesis revealed limited evidence for detrimental effects of ageing or spinal conditions on trunk muscles, and conflicting evidence for decreased physical activity or stroke having detrimental effects on trunk muscles. Thicknesses of rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique muscles were 36% to 48% smaller for older than younger adults. Muscle quality was poorer among people with moderate-extreme low back pain and predicted physical function outcomes.

Limitations: Study heterogeneity precluded meta-analysis.

Conclusion: Overall, the evidence base in older people has significant limitations, so the role of physiotherapy interventions aimed at these muscles remains unclear. The results point to areas in which further research could lead to clinically useful outcomes. These include determining the role of the trunk muscles in the physical function of older adults and disease; developing and testing rehabilitation programmes for older people with spinal conditions and lower back pain; and identifying modifiable factors that could mitigate age-related changes.

Keywords: Abdominal muscles; Multifidus muscles; Older adults; Physical function; Systematic review; Trunk muscles.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Muscles / diagnostic imaging
  • Abdominal Muscles / physiology*
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Lumbosacral Region / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Paraspinal Muscles / diagnostic imaging
  • Paraspinal Muscles / physiology*
  • Rectus Abdominis / physiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Stroke / physiopathology
  • Torso / diagnostic imaging
  • Torso / physiology*