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Spondylolisthesis is a problem with the back that can cause pain. There are many different approaches to easing the pain.

What causes spondylolisthesis?

The spine is made of a number of vertebrae, sitting on top of each other.

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

This can cause lower back pain, muscle tightness, weakness or stiffness in the legs, and tingling or numbness in the thigh or buttocks.

In adults, the main causes of spondylolisthesis are arthritis, osteoporosis and bone fractures or a sudden injury or trauma to the spine.

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

Spondylolisthesis symptoms

Often people with spondylolisthesis don’t notice anything.

Some people with spondylolisthesis experience:

  • 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

Spondylolisthesis diagnosis

To diagnose spondylolisthesis, a doctor usually performs a physical examination, and may order an x-ray of the lower back to see if a vertebra is out of place. Sometimes other imaging tests, such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, might be needed.

Spondylolisthesis treatment

Most people with spondylolisthesis get better with exercises that stretch and strengthen lower back muscles.

If you are diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, there is a range of treatment such as:

  • avoiding heavy physical work and exercise
  • taking medications, such as pain killers like paracetamol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • physiotherapy, such as exercises to improve abdominal muscle tone
  • surgery, which usually involves relieving the pressure on the nerves and possibly fusing the affected vertebrae to stop them slipping again

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Last reviewed: April 2020

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