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Spondylolisthesis overview

Spondylolisthesis is a spine condition that describes a vertebra slipping forward over the vertebra below it, causing stiffness and limited flexibility in that section of the spine.

Typically, spondylolisthesis develops as the result of a degenerative joint disease. As a joint in the spine wears down, the joint that connects the two vertebrae is no longer there, allowing the top vertebra to slip forward over the vertebra below it. This can cause the top vertebra to protrude into the spinal canal, potentially pinching a local nerve root and causing a series of symptoms to develop.

For many patients, this condition can be treated with conservative care, such as physical therapy and pain medication. However, sometimes spondylolisthesis must be treated with spine surgery to realign the vertebrae of the spine.

The first step toward finding treatment for spondylolisthesis is to discover what caused your condition to develop.

Causes of spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis is commonly caused by natural, degenerative changes of the spine — the weakening that the spine undergoes with age.

As we age, the components of the spine suffer years of constant wear and tear, causing them to weaken and become prone to damage. One of the most vulnerable parts of the spine is the facet joint. Facet joints in the spine connect the vertebrae together, allowing them to hinge and bend, giving the spine movement. These facet joints are covered with a thick coat of cartilage, allowing the vertebrae to hinge without compression or grinding together.

Over time, the cartilage on the facet joints wears down with constant motion and friction of the pivoting vertebrae. Other age-related factors, like weight gain, can add pressure to the vertebrae and facet joints, expediting the deterioration process.

As the joint wears down, certain conditions can develop, such as bone spurs and arthritis of the spine. However, if deterioration continues, the joint can wear away until it no longer supports the two surrounding vertebrae, allowing the top vertebra to fall over the bottom vertebra.

When this happens, the vertebra presses into the spinal canal and can potentially compress a nearby nerve root. If a nerve root is pinched, painful symptoms can develop.

Symptoms of spondylolisthesis

The symptoms of spondylolisthesis can be debilitating, often preventing patients from enjoying their daily hobbies and activities. Simple tasks like household chores, walking the dog and driving can become very difficult with the stiffness and pain that develops in the lower back with spondylolisthesis.

Other common symptoms of spondylolisthesis include:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Limited mobility
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty walking

This condition most commonly occurs in the lumbar spine (lower back), which means the symptoms often spread from the lower back into the buttocks, legs and feet. If you experience these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your physician to receive a diagnosis and begin a treatment plan before your condition worsens.

Diagnosing spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis can often be diagnosed after a thorough physical examination and review of your MRI test or CT scan. These two diagnostic methods can help your doctor pinpoint the location of your condition and accurately diagnose what is causing your pain.

If you are diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, your doctor can recommend treatments to help relieve your pain and regain your mobility.

Treatment for spondylolisthesis

For many patients, doctors will begin spondylolisthesis treatment with a series of conservative therapies. Conservative treatments focus on relieving the pressure on the spine and the pinched nerve, allowing the body to heal without surgical intervention. Often, conservative treatments take several months before the effectiveness can be measured, but many patients are able to find relief from these treatments.

The most common conservative treatments used for spondylolisthesis include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Gentle stretching
  • Back brace
  • Corticosteroid injections

If after several months you are not able to find relief from your spondylolisthesis symptoms, your doctor may recommend spine surgery.

At Laser Spine Institute, we offer a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open spine surgery. Our procedures have shorter recovery times^ and lower risks of complication compared to traditional spine surgery, often making us the clinically appropriate first choice between the two surgical options.

To date, our minimally invasive spine surgery has helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic neck or back pain, including patients diagnosed with spondylolisthesis.

Find out if you’re a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures by contacting Laser Spine Institute and asking for a no-cost MRI review.*