What is Spondylolisthesis? Understanding Causes and Treatment

Spondylolisthesis comes from the Greek terms for “spine” and “slipping,” so it literally means spinal slipping. It can be a fairly common cause of spinal instability and lower back pain. Spondylolisthesis happens when an injury or condition causes a vertebra, usually in the lumbar (lower) region, to slip out of its place in the spinal column. 

Although not always painful, spondylolisthesis can cause painful nerve compression that leads to lower back pain and radiating symptoms into the lower body. It is also a source of instability in the spine that can limit movement and disrupt your quality of life. 

To learn more about causes and treatment options for spondylolisthesis take a moment to read the following guide. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our team.

Causes of spondylolisthesis include fractures and degenerative disc disease

A frequent cause of spondylolisthesis is a fracture in the facet joints that link the spinal column. This causes instability that can cause the whole segment to slip forward over the one beneath it. Another term for this type of fracture is spondylolysis. 

A common form of this condition is degenerative spondylolisthesis. This is when an issue known as degenerative disc disease causes the spinal discs, which normally act as cushions, to wear out and become thin. This leads to abnormal bone growth and the development of an unstable surface that causes slippage.

Spondylolisthesis can also be caused by congenital defects in the formation of the spinal column at birth that lead to a greater likelihood of slippage over time. 

Diagnosing and treating spondylolisthesis

People with spondylolisthesis are usually diagnosed after reporting symptoms including pain and stiffness in the lower back and muscle spasms. Pain when bending over and difficulty standing or walking are also common. 

It is possible to have this condition for a long time without knowing it. Pain and symptoms can happen eventually when there is nerve compression. 

Patients usually have a full physical examination and testing, such as MRI, X-ray, or CT scan to determine if slippage is the cause of symptoms. 

Spondylolisthesis is graded on a scale of one to five, according to the degree of slippage:

  • I — Less than 25% slippage
  • II — Less than 50% slippage
  • III — Less than 75% slippage
  • IV — Less than 100% slippage
  • V — Total, or 100% slippage

The minor types of spondylolisthesis are usually treated with conservative therapies designed to ease pain and improve mobility. People with degenerative disc disease and facet joint arthritis typically explore similar options. This usually includes:

  • Rest
  • Bracing
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain management and spinal injections
  • Over-the-counter medication 

Spine surgery is usually recommended for patients with higher-grade spondylolisthesis, as well as cases of severe pain that do not respond to conservative therapies. The specific approach to surgery varies on a patient-to-patient basis. The primary goal of surgery may be to relieve painful nerve compression, or a spinal fusion or stabilization procedure may be the best course of action if there is severe and debilitating instability due to spondylolisthesis. 

Reach out to the caring experts at BEST Health System for spondylolisthesis treatment

At BEST Health System, our highly skilled surgeons and specialists can help you develop an effective treatment plan for any step of your spondylolisthesis treatment journey. We’re committed to patient-centered, personalized care that is right for your personal needs and treatment history. From pain-relieving injections to minimally invasive outpatient spine surgery at our state-of-the-art facilities, our mission is to get you back to the healthy and active lifestyle you deserve.

Contact us today to learn more. 

Spondylolisthesis Quick Answers

How do you fix spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis is usually treated with conservative therapies designed to manage symptoms and improve function. If slippage becomes too severe and is causing pain, spine surgery can help relieve nerve compression. In some cases, a stabilization procedure will be recommended to treat the slippage. 

Is spondylolisthesis serious?

Spondylolisthesis ranges in severity from mild to total slippage. The most serious cases of vertebral slippage can cause debilitating pain and spinal instability. In these cases, surgery may help. 

What happens if spondylolisthesis is left untreated?

Spondylolisthesis is often a progressive condition. If left untreated, there is a higher risk of continued slipping in the spine. Total displacement can result in severe pain and instability. 

What is the difference between spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolysis describes a small crack or stress fracture in one of the vertebrae caused by injury or defect. This fracture can develop into spondylolisthesis, which is when a vertebral body begins to slip out of its normal position in the spinal column.