An Overview of Spondylolisthesis

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 13, 2023
7 min read

Spondylolisthesis (pronounced spahn-duh-low-liss-thee-sus) is a condition in which one of the bones in your spine (the vertebrae) slips out of place and moves on top of the vertebra next to it.

It usually happens at the base of your spine (lumbar spondylolisthesis). When the slipped vertebra puts pressure on a nerve, it can cause pain in your lower back or legs.

Sometimes, people with this condition don't notice anything is wrong. But you can have symptoms that include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Muscle tightness and stiffness
  • Pain in your buttocks
  • Pain that spreads down your legs (due to pressure on nerve roots)
  • Pain that gets worse when you move around
  • Tight hamstrings (muscles in the back of your thighs)
  • Trouble standing or walking

Spondylolysis (pronounced spahn-duh-loll-iss-us) and spondylolisthesis are different conditions of the spine, though they're sometimes related. Both conditions cause pain in your lower back.

Spondylolysis is a weakness or small fracture (crack) in one of your vertebrae. This usually affects your lower back, but it can also happen in the middle of your back or your neck. It's most often found in kids and teens, especially those involved in sports that repeatedly overstretch the lower spine, like football or gymnastics.

It's not uncommon for people with spondylolysis to also have spondylolisthesis. That's because the weakness or fracture in your vertebra may cause it to move out of place.

Doctors divide this condition into six main types, determined by cause.

Degenerative spondylolisthesis: This is the most common type. As people age, the disks that cushion vertebrae can become worn, dry out, and get thinner. This makes it easier for the vertebra to slip out of place.

Isthmic spondylolisthesis: This type is caused by spondylosis. A crack in the vertebra can lead it to slip backward, forward, or over a bone below. It may affect kids and teens who do gymnastics, do weightlifting, or play football because they repeatedly overextend their lower backs. But it also sometimes happens when you're born with vertebrae whose bone is thinner than usual.

Congenital spondylolisthesis: Also known as dysplastic spondylolisthesis, this happens when your vertebrae are aligned incorrectly due to a birth defect.

Traumatic spondylolisthesis: In this type, an injury (trauma) to the spine causes the vertebra to move out of place.

Pathological spondylolisthesis: This type is caused by another spine condition, such as osteoporosis or a spinal tumor.

Postsurgical spondylolisthesis: Also called iatrogenic spondylolisthesis, this happens when a vertebra slips out of place after spinal surgery.

Your doctor may give your spondylolisthesis a grade based on how serious it is. The most common grading system is called Meyerding's classification and includes:

  • Grade I: The most common grade, this is defined as 1%-25% slippage of the vertebra
  • Grade II: Up to 50% slippage of the vertebra
  • Grade III: Up to 75% slippage
  • Grade IV: 76%-100% slippage
  • Grade V: More than 100% slippage, also known as spondyloptosis

Grades I and II are considered low grade. Grades III and up are considered high grade.

Causes of spondylolisthesis include:

  • Wear and tear with age
  • Birth defects
  • Wear and tear with age
  • Spondylolysis
  • Injury to the spine
  • Another condition such as a spinal tumor or osteoporosis
  • Spinal surgery

You're more likely to get this condition if you:

  • Take part in sports that put stress on your spine
  • Were born with thinner areas of vertebrae that are prone to breaking and slipping
  • Are 50 or older
  • Have a degenerative spinal condition

If your doctor thinks you might have this condition, they'll ask about your symptoms and run imaging tests to see if a vertebra is out of place. These tests may include:

  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

These tests can also help your doctor determine a grade for your spondylolisthesis.

The treatment you'll need depends on what grade of spondylolisthesis you have, as well as your age, symptoms, and your medical history. Low grade can usually be treated with physical therapy or medications. With high grade, you may need surgery, especially if you're in a lot of pain.

Nonsurgical treatment options include:

  • Rest: You may need to take some time off from sports and other vigorous activities.
  • Medications: Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines to relieve your pain, such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • Injections: Steroid shots in the area where you have pain can bring relief.
  • Physical therapy: Daily exercises that stretch and strengthen your supportive abdominal and lower back muscles can lower your pain.
  • Braces: For children with fractures in the vertebrae (spondylolysis), a back brace can restrict movement so the fractures can heal.

If you have high-grade spondylolisthesis or if you still have serious pain and disability after nonsurgical treatments, you may need surgery. This usually means spinal decompression, often along with spinal fusion.

Spinal surgery is always done under general anesthesia, which means you're asleep during the operation.

Spinal decompression: Decompression lessens the pressure on the nerves in your spine to relieve pain. There are several techniques your surgeon can use to give your nerves more room. They may remove bone from your spine, take out part or all of a disk, or make the opening in your spinal canal larger. Your surgeon might need to use all these methods during your surgery.

Spinal fusion: In spinal fusion, the doctor joins, or fuses, the affected vertebrae together to prevent them from slipping again. After this surgery, you may have a bit less flexibility in your spine.

Pars repair: This surgery repairs fractures in the vertebrae using small wires or screws. Sometimes, a bone graft is used to reinforce the fracture so it can heal better.

After spinal surgery, you'll likely need to stay in the hospital for at least a day. Most people can go home within a week. You may be able to stand or even walk the day after the operation. You may go home with pain medication to ensure that your recovery is as easy as possible.

You'll need to limit physical activity for 8-10 weeks after your surgery so your spine can heal. But you should still move around and even walk every day. This can make your recovery go faster and help keep complications at bay.

Around 10-12 weeks after your surgery, you'll start physical therapy to stretch and strengthen your muscles and help you move more easily. Ideally, you should have physical therapy for a year.

For the first year after your surgery, you'll need to see your surgeon about every 3 months. You'll likely have X-rays taken at these follow-ups to make sure your spine is healing well.

Serious spondylolisthesis sometimes leads to another condition called cauda equina syndrome. This is a serious condition in which nerve roots in part of your lower back called the cauda equina get compressed. It can cause you to lose feeling in your legs. It also can affect your bladder.

This is a medical emergency. If left untreated, cauda equina syndrome can lead to a loss of bladder control and paralysis.

See your doctor if you:

  • Have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels
  • Notice numbness or a strange sensation between your legs or on your buttocks, inner thighs, backs of your legs, feet, or heels
  • Have pain or weakness in a leg or both legs that may cause stumbling

The symptoms may come on slowly and vary in how serious they are.

For most people, rest and nonsurgical treatments bring long-term relief within several weeks. But sometimes, spondylolisthesis comes back again after treatment. This happens more often when it was a higher grade.

If you've had surgery, you'll most likely do well afterward. Most people get back to normal activities within a few months. But your spine may not be as flexible as it was before.

Spondylolisthesis is when one of your vertebrae moves out of place. This sometimes leads to back pain and other symptoms. It can be usually treated with rest, medication, and/or physical therapy. But serious cases may require surgery.

  • What is the main cause of spondylolisthesis?

In adults, it most often happens when cartilage and bones in the spine become worn from conditions such as arthritis. It's more common in people age 50 and older. In kids and teens, the most common causes are either a spinal birth defect or injury to the spine.

  • Is spondylolisthesis a serious condition?

For most people, it's not serious. Many people have few symptoms or no symptoms at all. It's only a problem when it causes pain or limits your ability to move. If that happens, you'll need to see a doctor for treatment.