April 15, 2024

New Research Reveals Link Between Size and Shape of Spinal Muscle and Body Fat

Researchers from Concordia’s School of Health have conducted a study that sheds light on the relationship between the size, shape, and function of a specific spinal muscle and body composition. Published in Frontiers in Musculoskeletal Disorders, the study focuses on the lumbar multifidus (LM), a long muscle that runs along the spine and plays a key role in spine stability.

The researchers recruited 134 male and female athletes from Concordia University’s varsity teams, including soccer, hockey, rugby, and football players. The athletes underwent two scanning procedures: an ultrasound to measure the characteristics of the LM, such as size and thickness at rest and contraction, and an advanced dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) to assess body composition metrics like bone mass, lean mass, and fat mass.

Using statistical analyses, the researchers examined the relationship between LM characteristics and body composition and compared the differences between the sports the athletes played. They also conducted separate analyses for males and females. The goal was to go beyond the limitations of the body mass index (BMI) and explore how body composition correlates with the morphology of the muscle.

Interestingly, the study revealed differences between male and female athletes. Female hockey players exhibited larger LM muscles compared to their rugby and soccer counterparts, while male football players had the largest LM muscles, with hockey players having the smallest.

The researchers also found that female athletes generally had higher levels of body fat than males. Ultrasound readings indicated a strong positive relationship between percentage body fat and echo intensity (EI), which measures the amount of fat within a muscle. This relationship held true for both males and females. Additionally, participants with higher body fat percentages showed lower ability to contract their multifidus muscle.

According to Maryse Fortin, the corresponding author of the study, the findings suggest that higher body fat levels contribute to more fat within the muscle, which may impair its activation. This highlights the importance of combining body composition assessment with functional evaluations using ultrasound.

The researchers emphasize that LM characteristics have been linked to low back pain and lower limb injuries in previous studies. Therefore, understanding the connections between LM and body composition is crucial for developing effective intervention plans, particularly for athletes who may be at a higher risk of injury.

While this study focused on elite athletes, Fortin suggests that confirming the findings in non-athlete populations would be valuable. The results confirm the intuitive notion that body composition impacts muscle quality. Maintaining a healthy body composition is essential to ensure the optimal functioning of the multifidus muscle and support spine stability, as previous research has already established its importance in preventing low back pain and lower limb injuries.

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