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Spinal Rotation

Twisting Your Spine


Updated June 11, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Oblique Abdominal Workout


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Spinal flexibility involves being able to bend forward and sideways, to extend back and to rotate, or twist your spine. Although spine health relies to a great extent on your ability to perform all these movements, there are limits as to how much you should ask your back to do. When it comes to spinal rotation, this is especially true -- rotation is associated with back injuries, such as muscle strain and herniated disc.

Introduction to Spinal Rotation

Rotation is a basic spinal movement in which you turn the spine around itself (called turning around the axis, with the axis being the spine.) When you rotate, or twist your spine, it also bends to the side as a secondary part of that action. This is due to the way the vertebra fit together. The internal oblique abdominals and the external oblique abdominals are the muscles primarily responsible for powering rotational movement.

Most people, especially with age, accumulate tension in the obliques and other trunk muscles. This tension is largely attributable to sedentary behavior (i.e., we sit far too many hours every day), and it diminishes our ability to twist our spines.

The muscle tension created by lack of activity reduces your trunk's range of motion. Being sedentary may also lead to weak muscles, which, in turn, may decrease support for any spinal movement, including rotation. Muscle weakness may also decrease overall trunk stability.

Don’t Risk Your Back -- The Dangers of Over Rotating

The ironic thing is that although tight muscles limit rotation, during wintertime and the garden season I see so many people over rotating their spines. These people have either not learned how to safely shovel or they have not taken the time to integrate the steps into the way they go about performing the task. Rotating the spine in order to dump a shovelful of snow or garden dirt behind you may seem easier while you’re doing it, but overall it’s much riskier for your back than simply taking a few steps and turning your whole body.

In a 1997 review of studies, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that lifting heavy objects with your back twisted is a risk factor for work related injury.


Spinal Rotation and Scoliosis

Scoliosis is often called a lateral curve of the spine, suggesting displacement off to the side of some of the vertebra. This is certainly true upon visual inspection. But if you look more carefully at the details of the way in which scoliosis curves are measured, you’ll find that an abnormal vertebral rotation underlies this side-to-side displacement. Treatment for scoliosis is often focused on decreasing the degree of the vertebral rotation.

How to Develop Your Spinal Rotation

Perhaps the best way to achieve optimal rotation of your spine is to do your back exercises daily.

A good back exercise program will consist of movements in every direction the spine moves, including rotation. Yoga is great for this because it places emphasis on developing flexibility and strength in all directions. (Pilates does the same.) But rotation may irritate some back problems, such as herniated disc. If you have a condition, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about how you can safely rotate your spine or move in any of the other directions as you exercise.

Work on Your Spinal Rotation With Back Exercises

Depending on your back's condition, as well as your level of fitness, there are a number of exercises from which you can choose.

If you are not yet well-conditioned, or you just happen to be low on energy and just need a pick-me-up, the yoga supine spinal stretch is a very basic move that may help release chronic tension out of the muscles responsible for rotation. If you currently have a back problem, let your pain be your guide, and pull back or stop if necessary. Again, consult with your doctor or physical therapist as to the best exercise(s) for you.

Here are a few more spinal rotation exercises, compliments of other About.com Guides:

From Pilates Guide Marguerite Ogle

  1. Pilates Chest Rotation Exercise
  2. Pilates Criss Cross Exercise

From Yoga Guide Ann Pizer

  1. Seated Yoga Twist
  2. Supine Spinal Twist (this is also mentioned above)

From Exercise Guide Paige Waehner

  1. Seated Spinal Rotation On The Fit Ball
  2. Seated Torso Twist with a Medicine Ball (NOTE: This is an advanced exercise. Proceed with caution.)

From Family Fitness Guide Catherine Holecko

  1. Family Fitness Ideas for Spine Twists and Other Stretches
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  6. Activities of Daily Living
  7. All About Spinal Rotation and Twisting

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