What Is Lumbar Retrolisthesis?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on September 25, 2023
3 min read

Lumbar retrolisthesis is when parts of your backbone are slipping backward on one another. Although this condition generally causes few symptoms, there’s evidence that lumbar retrolisthesis can lead to back pain and impaired back function.

Read on to learn more about what the symptoms of lumbar retrolisthesis are, what causes this condition, what you can do about it, and how you can prevent it.

Lumbar retrolisthesis is when parts of your spine, known as vertebra, slip backward on one another. This puts a lot of pressure on the vertebra and various parts of the spine, causing leg and back pain.

It’s different from anteriolisthesis, where the vertebra slips forward. 

Lumbar retrolisthesis is generally uncommon, but studies have suggested that retrolisthesis is present in up to 30% of people with chronic low back pain. It’s also associated with other spinal conditions, such as disc degeneration.

Most people with lumbar retrolisthesis are asymptomatic, meaning they won’t experience any symptoms. However, others may experience leg and back pain. 

You may also have lumbar retrolisthesis if you have the following symptoms:

  • Inability to move around freely
  • Changes in posture
  • Changes in range of motion, depending on how much your vertebrate has changed
  • Pain or numbness in your hips, thigh, leg, or buttocks
  • Bulging spinal disks

You are more likely to have lumbar retrolisthesis if you already have degenerative spinal conditions.

Lumbar retrolisthesis can occur in children as a birth defect. In such a case, it usually happens between the sacrum, which is a triangular bone between the fifth vertebra and the tailbone, and the fifth vertebra.

In adults, this condition usually happens between the fourth and fifth vertebra as a result of degenerative conditions such as arthritis. Adults can also get lumbar retrolisthesis due to:

  • Injuries that cause connecting soft tissues such as discs, muscles, tendons, and ligaments to become unstable
  • Bone and blood infections
  • Stress fractures
  • Traumatic fractures
  • Nutritional deficiencies

The longer the condition remains untreated, the worse it gets. Eventually, it can become irreversible.

Accordingly, if you feel leg or back pain, you need to contact your doctor right away for a proper diagnosis. An x-ray or MRI scan will confirm if you have the condition. If you have lumbar retrolisthesis, you need to get treatment immediately.

Lumbar retrolisthesis can be treated and prevented through exercise, wearing a brace or corset, changes in diet, and physical therapy.

Exercise. The main way to treat and prevent lumbar retrolisthesis is through exercise. By strengthening your abdominal and lumbar muscles, you will be able to improve your posture, which will help to relieve pain and repair damaged tissue. The main point of these exercises is to prevent further damage to your backbone.

Exercise will also make you feel better by boosting your endorphin levels, which will reduce depression and anxiety.

Here are some exercises you can do to strengthen your abdominal muscles:

  • Walking isn't only the simplest exercise but also the most beneficial for your lower back.
  • Extension exercises can improve the strength and endurance of your spine and hip muscles and also boost your spine’s ability to move.
  • Core exercises will take pressure off your spine. In particular, pelvic tilts will allow you to strengthen your back and abs without straining your spine.
  • Lower back rolls allow your lower back to stretch. However, these are not recommended if your lumbar retrolisthesis has already caused moderate to severe damage to your lower spine.

Wearing a brace or corset. To prevent your lumbar retrolisthesis from worsening, you may also have to wear a brace or corset to help repair the damaged spinal tissue. You will wear the brace until you’ve strengthened your abdominal muscles through exercise. At that point, you will be able to maintain your posture without the corset.

Physical therapy. Physical therapy can prevent and treat this condition by strengthening your spine and preventing further deterioration. 

Mobility and flexibility exercises will make it easier for you to move your spine and boost disc nutrition. Combined with abdominal exercises, physical therapy will strengthen your ligaments, muscles, and bones and boost the ability of your joint cartilage to absorb nutrients. This will make it less likely for you to develop lumbar retrolisthesis and make the recovery process faster and smoother for those who have the condition.