The paraspinal muscles are the muscles that run next to, and roughly parallel with, the spine. They consist of many small muscles that are attached to the vertebrae and control the motion of the individual bones, as well as assist with the larger motions of the whole trunk, or core, area. Together with other muscles, they help support the spine and keep it in proper alignment. They also limit the range of motion of the spine, which helps to prevent injuries to the disks and spinal cord caused by overextension.
In human anatomy, nearly all skeletal muscles work in pairs. While one muscle is contracting, or getting shorter, another muscle must get longer to allow movement. When a person bends forward, his paraspinal muscles are lengthening; when he stands up again, they are contracting to pull him back to a standing position. Paraspinal muscles on the left and right side of the body work together in the same way when the person bends sideways. When the person is not bending, the paraspinal muscles keep the spinal column in vertical alignment while he is sitting or standing.
Paraspinal muscles are thought to play an important role in preventing serious back injuries, such as a herniated disk. When a person experiences a back spasm, it is often a paraspinal muscle tightening up, which is a warning signal that his back is either bearing more weight than it should, or bending and twisting improperly. Paraspinal muscle spasms are extremely painful; the pain normally stops a person from doing whatever activity caused the pain, before a more serious injury to the disks or spinal cord can occur. In this way, a back spasm can prevent a serious injury, as well as protect an existing injury while it is healing. A paraspinal muscle strain, while very painful, will heal much more quickly than a disk injury.
The paraspinal muscles do not work alone; they are part of an interconnected network of muscles that wrap around the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. All of these muscles work together to protect the spine and allow movement within a safe range. Weak abdominal muscles make the muscles of the back work harder to compensate for the weakness, which can lead to a strain in one or more of the paraspinal muscles. Excess body weight, especially weight carried on the front of the body, can also contribute to an overload of the back muscles. Low back pain is one of the most common complaints of pregnancy, as well as in people who are overweight or obese.