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PLoS One. 2012;7(6):e39207. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0039207. Epub 2012 Jun 15.

Flexion relaxation and its relation to pain and function over the duration of a back pain episode.

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Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, United States of America.



Relaxation of the erector spinae often occurs in healthy individuals as full trunk flexion is achieved when bending forward from standing. This phenomenon, referred to as flexion relaxation is often absent or disrupted (EMG activity persists) in individuals reporting low back pain (LBP).


Self-reported pain and disability scores were compared to EMG measures related to the flexion relaxation (FR) phenomenon by 33 participants with LBP at up to eight sessions over a study period of up to eight weeks. Fourteen participants served as a control group. In the protocol, starting from standing participants bent forward to a fully flexed posture, and then extended the trunk to return to standing position. A thoracic inclinometer was used to measure trunk posture. Surface electrodes located at the L2 and L5 levels recorded EMG amplitudes of the erector spinae. Ratios of EMG amplitudes recorded during forward bending to amplitudes at full flexion, and ratios of extension to full flexion were calculated. EMG amplitudes and their ratios were compared between control and LBP groups at the initial visit. No significant differences between groups were found except at the L5 location at full flexion. Correlations of the ratios to pain and function scores recorded in repeated sessions over the LBP episode also were compared between LBP group participants classified as having transient, recurrent or chronic symptoms. In another analysis participants were grouped by whether their symptoms resolved over the study period.


The transient LBP group had significantly stronger correlations between pain and function to both ratios, than did those with more chronic LBP symptoms. Participants who experienced symptom resolution generally had stronger correlations of ratios to both pain and function than those with partial or no resolution. Improved understanding of these relationships may provide insight in clinical management of LBP.

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