WHAT IS IT?
You may not have heard of the transverse abdominis (TA) muscle, but it's an important muscle that acts as a stabilizer of the low back and core muscles. It is one of the main core stabilizing muscles of the lumbar spine. A weak TA is often indicated in low back pain. If you're looking to alleviate lower back pain, strengthening your TA muscle may be the ticket.
WHERE IS IT?
The TA is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles and runs between the ribs and the pelvis, horizontally from front to back. When activated, the TA muscles create a deep natural "corset" around the internal organs and lumbar spine. This activation flattens the abdominal wall, compresses the viscera (internal organs), supports the internal organs and helps expel air during forced exhalation. One major function of the TA muscles is to stabilize the spine and pelvis during movements that involve the arms and legs.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR TA ISN'T BEING UTILIZED
If the TA muscles are weak, the abdominal wall will begin to bulge forward and the pelvis may rotate forward and increase lordosis (inward curvature) in the spine. This can result after pregnancy and may also be associated with weight gain or lack of exercise.
A recent study shows that weak TA muscles may be to blame for lower back pain. Lack of strength, in this case, is a lesser concern compared to an inability to activate. Decrease in activation is caused by sedentary lifestyles, where the brain essentially "shuts off" the TA in response to lack of use.
When activities are added into sedentary lifestyles, like gardening or dog walking, back pain is the result because the brain-musculoskeletal relationship does not recognize the difference in activity until afterward.
This reason is essentially the same concept behind soreness. The body can complete many activities, some will just simply cause soreness because the body isn't used to being challenged in that manner.
Add in an activity like gardening or dog walking, and the brain will not recognize the body needs the TA until even months down the road. This is the main difference between muscle soreness and back pain related to TA activation; many muscles on the extremities are operationally responsible for specific movements - for example, the elbow is mainly bent by the biceps. The TA is not responsible for core strength - the obliques and rectus abdominus are more useful as far as actual strength goes. However, the small aspect of keeping the viscera stable and contained, as well as keeping the pelvis and spine stable, cannot be done without the TA. This will eventually result in back pain, and the back pain will continue until the TA is retaught to fire. It is for this reason that it is just as important to train the brain in activation as much as it is in training the muscle, itself.
DOES THIS SOUND LIKE YOU?
Talk to your doctor about chronic back pain, and make sure to mention any changes in your activity levels or daily routines. Ask them to recommend you to Champion Performance and Physical Therapy, as that is a sub-specialty of ours. It takes diligence to train your body to activate and strengthen your TA, but with the right guidance, it is possible to continue your activities pain-free.