24 July 2012 7 Comments

The Diaphragm – Functional Anatomy and Clinical Application as it relates to Lumbar Stability


The Diaphragm – Functional Anatomy and Clinical Application as it relates to Lumbar Stability

 The lumbar spine is a complex structure, requiring stability in movement, while resisting forces in a variety of planes. Several mechanisms assist the lumbar spine in maintaining stability. Adequate mobility in both the hips and thoracic spine set up the lumbar spine to succeed in maintaining stable segments.

One very important structure that helps integrate lumbar stability is the diaphragm. While many practitioners focus on the ability of the diaphragm to maintain an adequate breath, they forget it plays an integral part in providing stability and mobility to the lumbar vertebrae.


The diaphragm is attached to lumbar spine via the crura tendon. Although thin, this central tendon is a very powerful force producing structure.  The right crus tendon attaches to the anterior surface and intervertebral fibrocartilage of spinal levels L1-L3. The left crus tendon has attachments at spinal levels L1-L2. Since there are two separate tendinous insertions the left and right sides of the diaphragm can act independently of each other.

Through the work of Myers, Stecco and others we have discovered the diaphragm has many connections that influence function of the lumbar spine. The crura tendons connect fascially to the anterior longitudinal ligament. This area, according to Myers, is the meeting point of the upper and lower portions of the deep front line where, “walking meets breathing”. Here the diaphragm also shares connections with the quadratus lumborum, psoas major, and kidneys. With such a complex series of attachments the diaphragm not only affects the musculoskeletal system, but can also influence the adrenal glands and digestion. On the right side of body the falciform ligament forms a connection between the diaphragm and the liver. This dense structure is often mistaken as an abnormal adhesion during treatment.

Lastly, the diaphragm is innervated by nerve roots c3-c5 in the cervical spine. It is imperative that the clinician rules out the cervical spine, as well as phrenic neuropathy prior to integrating lumbar stability and breathing pattern re-education. The presence of such lesions may lead to mixed results while trying to achieve optimal lumbar stability.


Although clinical emphasis often centers on lumbar spine stability it still requires movement. Through adequate balance of static and dynamic restraints the lumbar spine is able to flex, extend and rotate in a precise and intricate manor. The primary balancing act occurs between upward tension exerted by the diaphragm, and downward force exerted by the psoas major. An optimal balance of this mechanism contributes to efficient co-contraction of the small segmental stabilizers and large abdominal musculature. This helps provide a strong stable abdominal cavity. Failure to achieve this results in inadequate motion of individual lumbar vertebrae, and compensatory movement patterns.

Dysfunction in the diaphragm and lumbar spine may present for a number of reasons. The inability to breathe properly, will certainly affect function. Breathing is taken for granted, as it is automatically driven by our nervous system. A clinician should be mindful that the nervous system, like any system, can get lazy, injured and adapt. If a patient needs more oxygen, the body has to supply the demand.  A change in respiratory rate or increase in the use of secondary respiratory muscles will alter the length of the thoracic cavity. This will increase oxygen delivery to tissue, but not without sacrificing thoracic cavity mobility. Without correct rib expansion and movement of the thoracic spine the diaphragm eventually loses strength, and the body begins to adapt.

Stability – Mobility – Dysfunction

The joint by joint theory used in the functional movement screen [FMS] and selective functional movement assessment [SFMA] states that certain joints require mobility while others are designed to be stable. Stability does not mean that segments remain fixed and stable, unless such a demand is placed on the body.  More often the body is required to have controlled stability as a joint rolls, tilts, or glides.

In cases of low back pain patients can easily alter stability and mobility of the diaphragm. With optimal function tendinous and fascial structures at attachment sites remain healthy. This allows for interlayer sliding and normal joint motion. Adequate joint mechanics drive proprioceptive input to the brain and creates optimal function. With prolonged postures tissue and joint health changes. Tissue under sustained low grade mechanical load becomes of poor quality and can develop fibrosis. Fibrotic tissue does not move well and creates increased tension in muscles and fascia.

The following actions can occur while attempting to achieve balance between all sides of the spine. When the amplitude of a diaphragmatic contraction decreases, the aponeurosis of the crura tendon can increase in tension. This not only drives dysfunction in the diaphragm, but restricts motion of the L1-L3 segments. In response to upper segmental fixation the lower lumbar spine, segments L4-L5, can become hypermobile.

In an attempt to normalize itself, the body will recruit a number of restraints that if not balanced, create faulty stability. As the psoas major opposes the diaphragm it creates both a compressive force and anterior shear on the lumbar segments. To equalize, the spine activates posterior spinal restraints. The multifidi help to counteract the psoas major and control anterior shear forces.

If this mechanism becomes dysfunctional the nervous system attempts to increase lower lumbar stability through recruiting static restraints, the ilio-lumbar ligaments. When short the ilio-lumbar ligaments prevent anterior glide of L4-L5 and restrict motion of sacroiliac joints. The end result can be a lumbar spine that is partially or fully fixated and dynamically very unstable.

A patient may present to you in any stage of this balancing act. In most cases the patient is no longer able to safely flex or extend the lumbar spine. As the spine needs to bend, compensatory patterns occur at the thoraco-lumbar junction. In time permanent positional change of the diaphragm can occur relative to the lumbar vertebrae. Soon after symptoms arise, these can vary from general soreness and fatigue to discopathies or derangements at L4-L5-S1. Sprains to the ilio-lumbar ligaments are also common, and may indicate more advanced staged dysfunction as there is distinct loss of dynamic lumbar stabilization in these cases.

Next week I will follow up with a simple blog (with videos) on clinical application and rehabilitation, in treating patients with similar clinical presentations. As always questions and comments are appreciated. Pass it around if you enjoy it!

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7 Responses to “The Diaphragm – Functional Anatomy and Clinical Application as it relates to Lumbar Stability”

  1. Mike 3 August 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Hi Conor,

    I can’t believe I found this blog, but I am pretty sure this is exactly the problem I am having.

    I have had lower back/psoas pain for about a year and a half now. After trying numerous chiropractors and phys. therapists, I went to see a very great therapist/trainer here in the States. He is a big proponent of FMS/SFMA and correctly (I believe) noticed that I had a loss of segmental stability through my lumbar spine from L5-L2 and excessive hinging at the T-L junction. Basically when I extend I do not use all the vertebrae in my spine freely, and instead, use a certain spot in my high lumbar spine to do all the work. It becomes overloaded and painful and likely causes my hip flexors to overload as well.

    Anyway, he gave me some movements to go through (deep breathing in relative child’s pose, Leg Rolling, and Leg-lock bridge), but I only had an hour with him so we couldn’t fully address the problem, I don’t think. He is a little on the expensive side so I have been saving up to go back and figure out more.

    I believe this is all caused by my work, which requires me to sit in front of a computer all day (pretty common now, I guess). I’ve been trying to fix my sitting posture and thoracic mobility, but get lazy and the pain always pops up. I can definitely do better, I know.

    Sorry for the long post, but I’m just excited to see something that pertains to the problem I am having and read stuff from smart people, and I eagerly await the follow up article. If you would like provide any thoughts I would be more than willing to know what you have to say (I believe you have my email). I’m sure you are a busy guy, but would be remiss if I didn’t throw it out there.


    • admin 11 August 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      Thanks mike for the kind words!!! I have been doing further work since this article. I believe that alot of the issue at the t-l junction are loss of tspine mobility especially at t1-t4. I have developed a more recent breathing exercise that I believe can help tackle this issue. I look forward to posted an article a video on this in the coming weeks.
      In the meantime keep doing your exercises. You may simply require a few more sessions of soft tissue work or mobilizations to unlock your dysfunction. Sounds like your therapist is doing the right things.
      Thanks Again

  2. Lael White, LMP 23 August 2013 at 3:04 am #

    Fabulous. I am also learning that the diaphragm via it’s crura attachments at the anterior lumbar spine, combined with a functional breathing pattern, can contribute to bringing the l-spine slightly forward, an advantage to the female anatomy in providing support for pelvic organs.

  3. Carolyn Box 11 May 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    Do you have a FB page that you run your articles through? I only saw your personal page on FB. If you do please direct me as I would like to follow it. Thanks

    • admin 12 May 2014 at 11:06 am #

      Still working on it Carolyn I’ll let you know when I do. Thanks for the interest. Conor


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