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What is spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis is a problem with a person’s spine. It can lead to back pain. There are many different ways to help ease the pain of spondylolisthesis.

What are the symptoms of spondylolisthesis?

Often people with spondylolisthesis don’t notice anything.

Some people with spondylolisthesis have:

  • pain or stiffness in their lower back
  • tight muscles, or spasms, in the back of their thighs (hamstrings)
  • pain, numbness, or tingling in their buttocks, legs, and feet
  • weakness in their legs
  • an abnormal way of walking

What causes spondylolisthesis?

In adults, the main causes of spondylolisthesis are arthritis, osteoporosis and bone fractures (broken bones). An injury or damage to the spine can also cause spondylolisthesis.

In children, spondylolisthesis is usually caused by a birth defect or an injury to the lower back.

The spine (backbone) is made of more than 30 bones called vertebrae. These bones join together and sit on top of each other. In between the bones are nerves.

In spondylolisthesis, one of the vertebrae slips forward. It leans over the vertebra below it. This squashes the nerve that sits between the two vertebrae.

The damaged nerve can cause back pain, especially in the lower part of the back. It can also cause leg muscles to feel tight, or weak or stiff. There can also be a feeling of tingling or numbness in the thigh or buttocks.

How is spondylolisthesis diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose spondylolisthesis by doing some tests. The doctor will physically examine you.

They may then ask for an x-ray of your lower back. This will show if one of your vertebrae is out of place.

Other tests, such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, can also be used.

How is spondylolisthesis treated?

Most people with spondylolisthesis get better by doing special exercises. These exercises stretch and strengthen the muscles in the lower part of your back, legs and abdomen. It’s important to get the advice of a physiotherapist so that you don’t make things worse.

Some treatments for spondylolisthesis include:

  • not doing heavy physical work and exercise
  • avoiding activities that make your pain worse
  • taking medicines to help ease the pain
  • physiotherapy
  • surgery

Pain killers like paracetamol, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to help with your pain.

Surgery usually involves taking away the pressure on the nerves. Sometimes the vertebrae are joined together (fused) in a way that stops them slipping again.

Can spondylolisthesis be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of developing spondylolisthesis by:

What are the complications of spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis gradually gets worse over time. It may cause you serious problems if left unmanaged. It is very important that you follow-up with your doctor.

Resources and Support

If you want to know more about spondylolisthesis, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak to, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

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