posterior nonaxial glide of a lumbar vertebra at a vertebral joint

Motions of the Joints of the Lumbar Spine

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Overview of the Motions of the Joints of the Lumbar Spine

This blog post article is an overview of the motions of the lumbar spine.The lumbar spine can move axially and nonaxially in all three cardinal planes (sagittal, frontal, and transverse). For more complete coverage of the structure and function of the low back and pelvis, Kinesiology – The Skeletal System and Muscle Function, 3rd ed. (2017, Elsevier) should be consulted.

 

Axial Motions of the Lumbar Spine

The axial motions for the lumbar spine are shown in Figure 9 and are as follows:

  • Extension and flexion in the sagittal plane
  • Left lateral flexion and right lateral flexion in the frontal plane
  • Right rotation and left rotation in the transverse plane

Axial motions of the lumbar spine

Figure 9. Six axial cardinal plane motions of the lumbar spine. (A, B) Extension and flexion in the sagittal plane respectively; lateral views. (C, D) Left lateral flexion and right lateral flexion in the frontal plane respectively; posterior views. (E, F) Right rotation and left rotation in the transverse plane respectively; anterior views. Courtesy Joseph E. Muscolino. Manual Therapy for the Low Back and Pelvis – A Clinical Orthopedic Approach (2015).

The term ipsilateral rotation is used to describe the motion created by a muscle that rotates the trunk to the same side as where the muscle is located—in other words, a left-sided muscle that rotates the trunk to the left side is performing ipsilateral rotation, as is a right-sided muscle that rotates the trunk to the right side. The term contralateral rotation is used to describe the motion created by a muscle that rotates the trunk to the opposite side from where it is located—in other words, a left-sided muscle that rotates the trunk to the right side is performing contralateral rotation, as is a right-sided muscle that rotates the trunk to the left side.

The spinal joints of the trunk can also circumduct. Circumduction is not a joint action but a series of four joint actions performed in sequence: left lateral flexion, flexion, right lateral flexion, and extension. If these joint actions are carried out sequentially, one at a time, the trunk will transcribe a square shape. However, if these joint actions are performed smoothly, as is usually done, with the “corners” of the joint actions rounded off, then the trunk moves in a cone shape (Fig. 10) that leads many therapists to describe the motion as rotation. However, circumduction is not rotation—in fact, no transverse plane rotation occurs with circumduction. All four joint actions of circumduction occur in the sagittal and frontal planes.

Circumduction of the joints of the lumbar spine

Figure 10. Circumduction of the trunk at the spinal joints. Circumduction is a series of four joint actions (left lateral flexion, flexion, right lateral flexion, and extension) carried out one after the other. (A) Joint actions shown sequentially. (B) Joint actions with the corners “rounded off.” Courtesy Joseph E. Muscolino. Manual Therapy for the Low Back and Pelvis – A Clinical Orthopedic Approach (2015).

 

Table 1 shows average healthy ranges of axial motion for the lumbar spine as well as the thoracic spine and the thoracolumbar spine. It is important to keep in mind that not every client will necessarily have these ranges. Ranges such as those shown in Table 1 are averages across the entire population. Elderly people usually have a smaller range of motion than do younger people, and people with chronic injuries may also have decreased ranges of motion.

 

Table 1. Lumbar, Thoracic, and Thoracolumbar Spine Ranges of Motion

Average Healthy Ranges of Motion Measured from Anatomic Position
Lumbar Spine (L1-L2 to L5-S1) Thoracic Spine (T1-T2 to T12-L1) Thoracolumbar Spine (T1-T2 to L5-S1)
Flexion 50 degrees 35 degrees 85 degrees
Extension 15 degrees 25 degrees 40 degrees
Right lateral flexion 20 degrees 25 degrees 45 degrees
Left lateral flexion 20 degrees 25 degrees 45 degrees
Right rotation 5 degrees 30 degrees 35 degrees
Left rotation 5 degrees 30 degrees 35 degrees

 

Nonaxial Motions of the Lumbar Spine

The lumbar spine can also move nonaxially. Nonaxial joint motion is known as translation, or glide. The lumbar spine can translate/glide anteriorly and posteriorly, laterally to the right and left, and superiorly and inferiorly. Anterior translation is also called protraction, and posterior translation is also called retraction. Superior translation is also called distraction or traction, and inferior translation is also called compression (Fig. 11). Nonaxial glide motions of the lumbar spine are not as large in excursion as in other regions of the spine but should be considered. Superior glide/traction is especially important because it helps to decompress the joints of the spine.

Non-axial motions of the lumbar spine

Figure 11. Nonaxial motions of the lumbar spine. (A, B) Anterior glide (protraction) and posterior glide (retraction), respectively; right lateral views. (C, D) Right lateral glide and left lateral glide, respectively; anterior views. (E, F) Superior glide (also known as distraction or traction) and inferior glide (also known as compression), respectively; anterior views. Courtesy Joseph E. Muscolino. Manual Therapy for the Low Back and Pelvis – A Clinical Orthopedic Approach (2015).

 

Note: This is the third in a series of 8 blog post articles on the anatomy and physiology of the lumbar spine and pelvis. 

The blog post articles in this series are:

  1. Bones of the Lumbar Spine and Pelvis
  2. Joints of the Lumbar Spine (disc & facet) and Pelvis
  3. Motions of the Joints of the Lumbar Spine
  4. Motions of the Joints of the Pelvis
  5. Muscles of the Lumbar Spine
  6. Muscles of the Pelvis
  7. Ligaments of the Lumbar Spine and Pelvis
  8. Precautions for Manual Therapy of the Lumbar Spine and Pelvis