Overview

The paraspinal muscles, sometimes called the erector spinae, are three muscle groups that support your back. You use them every time you lean to one side, arch your back, bend forward, or twist your torso. This makes them a good area to focus on if you’re looking to treat back problems, improve posture, or build strength.

Keep reading to learn more about the paraspinal muscles, including what can cause pain in them and how to strengthen them.

Function and anatomy

Your back contains three layers of muscles:

  • Deep layer. This layer contains short muscles that connect to the vertebra in your spine.
  • Intermediate layer. This layer is in between the two others. It contains the paraspinal muscles.
  • Superficial layer. This is the outermost later of muscles, closest to your skin.

Within the intermediate layer you have three paraspinal muscles: the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles. You have two of each muscle, located on either side of your spine.

Iliocostalis muscles

The iliocostalis muscles are those farthest away from your spine. They help you bend backward and rotate around your spinal column. The iliocostalis muscles have three parts:

  • Lumborum. This is the lower part, which connects your lower ribs to the upper part of your hip bone.
  • Thoracis. This is the middle section, which runs from your upper ribs to your lower ribs.
  • Cervicis. This is the upper part, which extends from your upper ribs to your neck.

Longissimus muscles

The longissimus muscles help you arch your back and neck. They’re also responsible for letting your neck and back move left and right. The longissimus muscles also have three parts:

  • Capitis. This is the upper section, which runs from your neck to your upper back.
  • Cervicis. This is the middle section, which extends a little farther down than the longissimus capitis.
  • Thoracis. This is the lower section, which extends down most of your back.

Spinalis muscles

The spinalis muscles are closest to your spine. They’re the smallest of the paraspinal muscles, and they help you bend backward and side to side. They also allow you to rotate at the waist. Like the other paraspinal muscles, the spinalis muscles can be broken down into three parts:

  • Capitis. This is the upper part that runs down the back of your neck.
  • Cervicis. This part runs from your neck to the middle of your spine,
  • Thoracis. This is the main part of the spinalis muscles that runs from your mid to lower spine.

Paraspinal muscles diagram

Explore the interactive 3-D diagram below to learn more about the paraspinal muscles.

Paraspinal muscle pain

If you have ongoing back pain, it could be an issue with your paraspinal muscles. Several things can affect them, including muscle atrophy, muscle strain, and poor posture.

Muscle atrophy

Atrophy refers to the loss of muscle mass, usually due to not using the affected muscle. When this happens to your paraspinal muscles, it’s harder for them to stabilize your spine. Paraspinal muscle atrophy is associated with lower back pain.

Muscle strain

Sore paraspinal muscle pain may be due to overuse or an injury. In addition, both dehydration and overuse can cause muscle spasms. To avoid muscle strain, make sure to properly stretch before vigorous exercise and hydrate your body before and after working out.

Poor posture

When you sit or stand up straight, your paraspinal muscles relax. When you’re hunched over or leaning more to one side, it strains your paraspinal muscles, which have to work harder to support your spine.

Paraspinal muscle exercises

Try these simple daily exercises to keep your paraspinal muscles strong and free of pain.

Lower back stretch

Sit in a chair, keeping space between your back and the chair. With your feet flat on the floor, bend forward at the waist until you feel a slight stretch in your lower back. Hold for 30 seconds, pause, and repeat a few times. Make sure you’re not doing any kind of bouncing motion while holding the stretch.

Single-arm side stretch

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Place one hand on your waist and other hand over your head. Bend sideways at the waist toward the side with your hand resting on your waist. Bend until you feel a slight stretch in your back muscles and hold for 30 seconds. Pause and repeat on the other side. Repeat several times on both sides.

Extension with resistance band

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width, with the end of a resistance band in each hand. With the rest of the band lying flat on the floor, step on the band with both feet. Bend forward at your hips, keeping your back perfectly straight, and then slowly stand back up. You should feel some effort in your back muscles. Slowly bend forward again. Do one set of 15 extensions daily.

The bottom line

Your paraspinal muscles are crucial to the movement of your spine. They also have the important job of supporting your spine. Try to regularly stretch and strengthen them to keep them working efficiently and avoid back pain.