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What is Spondylolisthesis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Spondylolisthesis is a back problem which is caused by the forward displacement of a vertebra, meaning that the vertebra slips forward in relationship to the vertebrae around it. This condition can be painful and potentially very problematic for the patient, causing difficulty walking and making it hard to work in a number of environments. It most commonly strikes the lower back, and is typically diagnosed with the assistance of x-rays, which are used to identify the vertebra which has slipped forward.

There are a number of different types of spondylolisthesis. One form is caused by a congenital birth defect, in which case it is known as dysplastic spondylolisthesis, meaning that the bone was malformed during fetal development. Isthmic spondylolisthesis is a form which emerges during childhood, while degenerative spondylolisthesis emerges in older people, especially African-Americans. Pathogenic spondylolisthesis is caused by things like tumors and some cancers, while traumatic spondylolisthesis is the result of a fracture which displaces the vertebra.

Lower back pain is one obvious sign of spondylolisthesis, although because it is linked with a number of conditions, these conditions must be ruled out before jumping to a spondylolisthesis diagnosis. Often, the patient also develops posture problems, leaning forward to take some of the strain off the back, and he or she may develop a waddling walk. Most notably, spondylolisthesis is linked with a tightening in the hamstrings and general decreased flexibility.

Once spondylolisthesis is diagnosed, treatment options vary, depending on the severity. In mild cases, physical therapy may be used to strengthen and tone the back, in combination with pharmaceuticals to ease inflammation and pain linked with the condition. In other instances, surgical options may need to be pursued to address the problem.

Because any disruption to the vertebral column can be very dangerous, it is important to pursue medical treatment for back pain, to determine the cause of the condition and to treat it, if possible. Failure to do so could result in severe injury, as well as a decreased quality of life. It is also a good idea to discuss all possible treatment options with a doctor. Some doctors are willing to discuss alternative or complementary medicine when it comes to back pain, and patients may be able to achieve relief by combining things like acupuncture and chiropractic with conventional medical treatment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon238382 — On Jan 03, 2012

I was diagnosed with this at 16 years of age. I am male and it was determined this was a result of me being a breech birth baby, in effect a birth defect.

I sought treatment after I seemingly jarred my hips playing football (stepped in a hole) but pain radiated across my pelvic region and hips. Couldn't walk straight, hurt constantly. After months of work with my chiropractor, I returned to normal activity, which included football, soccer, and baseball. My chiropractor insisted I keep flexible and keep my lower back and core strengthened to help protect against another slippage. Of course, also avoid impacts from behind that could cause hyper-extension and more trauma.

It's been 17 years now since I was diagnosed, and I still play sports regularly (soccer and volleyball). I have minor discomfort from time to time, radiating pain across the top of the pelvis/hips. I due my stretches for a week or two and the pain subsides and goes away.

Only recently have I had one episode where it slipped to the point of immobilization and constant pain, no matter my position (standing, lying, sitting) and no amount of stretching could help it. I ended up taking some strong pain meds to dull the pain and after a few days, the pain subsided and seems my stretching has helped it.

I was recently diagnosed with gout as well and due to my involvement with sports and such, arthritis is a factor in my activities and well being. I do not know what caused the sudden slip and subsequent pain other than perhaps a flare of gout in the lower back joint, causing swelling and therefore it slipped to a great degree than normal.

Because of this, I've focused on getting my core to top shape and keep flexible. The debilitating pain was something I wish to never feel again. My legs were fine if not dull to sensation but my pelvic area and back felt like it exploded.

By EllieBunn — On Dec 16, 2009

This is a really painful thing to have. I've known about mine for about five years now.

When by back first started hurting, I told my mum that my hips were hurting - that's what it felt like! After a visit to the chiropractor, who took x-rays and started me on a physical therapy course - twice a week for 13 weeks, I basically just worked on strengthening my core muscles.

I try not to let it change my life - sometimes, though, this is very hard! I'm intrigued to know how it feels for a man who has it. I know at certain times for me it just gets worse, like if I stand, sit or lie down for too long, or do jolty activities like horse riding.

Don't be discouraged by having Spondylolisthesis - there have been times I couldn't even bear to go shopping with my mum, and once I missed out on a friends' birthday party because of it. But know that if you keep your muscles strong, and don't do anything to aggravate it too much, you can be perfectly comfortable the majority of the time. :)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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