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What Is Spondylolisthesis?


Spondylolisthesis refers to a condition when a vertebra slips out of place. Usually, an injured vertebral bone shifts forward onto the vertebra below it. Because spondylolisthesis feels like a muscle strain and improves with rest, this condition can go undiagnosed. There are five types of spondylolistheses:

  1. Dysplastic spondylolisthesis, a condition present at birth
  2. Degenerative spondylolisthesis, which develops over time
  3. Traumatic spondylolisthesis, from an accident or trauma
  4. Isthmic spondylolisthesis, often from defects related to microtraumas in athletes
  5. Pathologic spondylolisthesis, from bone or connective tissue disorders

Isthmic spondylolisthesis is the most common type. This condition strikes children and adult athletes. Children and young adults are at higher risk for developing spondylolisthesis. A similar condition that results from aging is called spondylosis.

When you or your child are experiencing back pain that limits your flexibility, seek medical attention from a board certified spine specialist. The experts at the Premier Brain and Spine, New Jersey’s top spine center, provide an accurate spondylolisthesis diagnosis and timely, effective treatment.

What Causes Spondylolisthesis?

The two most common causes of spondylolisthesis are athletic overuse and genetics. Participation in sports is a leading risk factor for this condition, but doctors suspect that a thin lining of your vertebrae is hereditary. The sports most often associated with spondylolisthesis include:

  • Football
  • Weightlifting
  • Gymnastics

Repetitive motions during weight training, overstretching in gymnastics, and trauma in football are the leading causes of spondylolisthesis. Young adults are most often stricken with this condition, but adults are also at risk when playing these sports. Annual physicals help catch the condition in athletes and maturing young adults.:

What Are the Symptoms of Spondylolisthesis?


Some people with spondylolisthesis don’t experience any noticeable symptoms. The condition may not be diagnosed until imaging tests are conducted for an unrelated injury or illness. People who do experience spondylolisthesis symptoms often have:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Tight hamstrings
  • Stiffness in the back
  • Difficulty walking or standing
  • Pain that feels like a strained muscle
  • Pain that radiates into the back of your thighs or buttocks

Anti-inflammatory medications help alleviate the pain and stiffness, but the symptoms my continue to worsen with activity and improve after rest until you have the condition treated. With a high degree of vertebral slippage, you may experience weakness, tingling or numbness in one or both legs. These sensations arise when the slippage is so severe that it compresses nerves. Compressed nerves in your lower back may also cause bladder and bowel complications.:

How Is Spondylolisthesis Diagnosed?

When you visit a spine specialist or take your child to the doctor, the first questions tend to be about the medical history, current symptoms and general health. The doctor may ask about the sports played. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor conducts may include:

  • Checking for any muscle spasms
  • Testing for muscle weakness
  • Checking for tender areas along the spine
  • Observing your or your child’s posture
  • Checking your gait as you walk
  • Having your child do a series of movements to test the range of motion

After an examination, a top spinal physician follows up with imaging tests. These tests usually include x-rays, but may also include a CT scan, SPECT scan or MRI. Vertebra slippage is visible in a side-view x-ray. Additional lower back x-rays from different angles reveal possible stress fractures in your spine. The amount of forward slippage of a vertebra in the lower back points your doctor toward a particular treatment plan.

What Are the Non-Surgical Treatments for Spondylolisthesis?

To treat you or your child with spondylolisthesis, the doctor often recommends at-home remedies first, such as:

  • Heat
  • Bracing
  • Bed rest
  • Light exercise
  • Anti-inflammatory medications

If you or your child experiences instability caused by stiff legs or an unbalanced gait, surgery may be the best solution. Ten to 15 percent of young adults with mild spondylolisthesis don’t experience improvement with at-home treatments. Instead, they need corrective spine surgery. If you or your child experiences compressed nerve pain, it increases the need for surgery.

What Are the Surgical Treatments for Spondylolisthesis?

There isn’t a single procedure that fixes all vertebra slippage. Your NJ spine surgeon may perform a combination of two or more techniques to address the slippage and restore you to a pain-free life, such as:

During these surgical procedures, you’re given general anesthesia. Surgery to treat severe spondylolisthesis requires several months of recovery with limited activity. Using advanced diagnostic tools and state-of-the-art techniques, the doctors at Premier Brain & Spine have successfully treated many young adult athletes with spondylolisthesis. Contact the team to schedule a consultation today.

Updated on Jul 27, 2022 by Dr. David Wells-Roth (Neurosurgeon) of Premier Brain & Spine

Premier Brain & Spine
10 Parsonage Rd, Suite 208A
Edison, NJ 08837
(732) 258-0190