Facet Joint Problems – Extend Yourself

Kimberly Semple-Davies former Principal Ballerina Queensland Ballet

Extension is one of those delightful movements of the spine that brings me joy. It is also one of those movements that look amazing on your instagram feed. You know what I am talking about those beautiful swans performed by our favourite insta “Pilates porn” practitioners (we all have the guilty pleasure of watching this on insta) . 

Sadly, as a teacher it has taken me years to find ways to help my clients to achieve clear and appropriate spinal extension. It has made me think and rethink about what it is to move our spine as a continuous harmonious team of joints and muscles. When that harmony is achieved it is a beauty to behold.

To achieve this harmony, we need to take the time to think about why we want to achieve this movement and let that inform our how. In this series of blogs we will explore:

  • The shape of the spine arising from development
  • What is spinal extension?
  • What level of the spine are we extending, that is what segment of the spine are we thinking about?
  • Why is it important?
  • Ways to build towards it?

Extension is achieved in childhood


When we talk about the spine and extension we must remember developmentally, our body starts in flexion, the best “C” curve you will ever see. As we grow, lift our head and assume upright our spine changes shape and we start to develop what are known as secondary curves (cervical and lumbar). This means that our broader spinal shapes are:


// primary curves are kyphotic (in a flexion pattern), think the thoracic and sacral curves

// second curves are lordodic (in a slight extension pattern) think the cervical and lumbar curves

All of this means that our spine has broader shapes that will inform our decisions about the pattern of movement we choose (this will be discussed in a later blog in this series, and is part of our cueing and movement course).

What is spinal extension?

Extension is simply increasing the angel between joints. This concept is easy when we look at joints like the elbow and the wrist, we can see where the extension is happening. When it comes to the spine it is a little bit more complex because our spine as it is not one joint, it is an array of joints interplaying the 33 vertebral bodies and at various other bodies which have different resting states. It is important to remember that when we are talking about the spine we should think of it as a series of segments, with all of these joints, muscles, nerves etc at each segmentary level. 

Thinking about the spinal joints, there are the:

// Craniovertebral joints

  • C1, C2

// Costovertebral joints (the 2 rib attachments)

  • Costotransverse joint
  • Costovertebral joint

// Sacral vertebral joints

  • L5/ S1 joint
  • the 2 sacroiliac joints

// Joints of the vertebral bodies

  •  intervertebral disc joint (intervertebral symphysis) 

// Joints of the vertebral arches (2 per level)

  • zygapophyseal joints, often called facet joints.

No wonder the concept of extension of the spine can be so difficult to understand and achieve. This is especially as there are so so many conditions in which we are told that extension is contraindicated, eg spondylisthesis.  As a result I like to start with the idea of what is the resting state for each particular joint, and if we know that we can start to consider whether the joint needs to be:

  • working towards extension or flexion 
  • working in rhythm with surrounding joints

The zygapophyseal joints (facet joint) is probably the most difficult of the spinal joints to comprehend. Remember there are two of them in between each vertebrae, and one side can be blocking a movement for the whole spine. In this extract from a much longer video from our Anatomy Dimensions Spine and Torso course, I explain the orientation of the facets and how that contributes to the movement. 

The locking and blocking of the facet joints are particularly important for certain people, such as those:

// experiencing problems in the lumbar/sacral aspects of their spine

// with scoliosis

Here is an extract from one of our courses showing some simple strategies to release the lumbar / sacral joints so as to unlock the facets. Once these joints have more mobility it is important to then apply to exercise strategies.

 This blog is part of a series that will be published over 2022. If you are wanting to learn more about the biomechanics of movement in context or problem solve an exercise or topic that has been bothering you as a teacher you can:

// undertake one of our online courses

// contact us to book an in-person or zoom mentoring session about your specific topic


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