Lumbar Spondylo-what?

Your spine is made up of 24 individual vertebrae, all stacked on top of each other. The lowest five vertebrae are referred to as your lumbar spine. Each vertebra has two basic components- the “body” and the “arch.” You can envision this as a coffee mug lying on its side. The cup would represent the vertebral body, and the handle would represent the arch. The spinal cord travels through each of the vertebral arches on its way from your brain to your tailbone.

The term lumbar spondylysis describes a condition where a part of the arch breaks free from its anchor site on the vertebral body. This condition most commonly occurs during adolescence while bones are hardening. When we are young our bones have taken shape but they have not yet become hardened. Think of this as a clay coffee mug that has not yet been fired in the kiln. During adolescence, our bones transform from this softer clay to a more brittle bone.

The condition is sometimes caused by trauma but more often is a “stress fracture” to the arch of the vertebra. This defect is thought to result from repetitive movements, especially hyperextension and rotation. The condition is more common in people who were born with a small or weak arch- think of a coffee mug handle with a very thin brittle attachment.

Lumbar spondylolysis usually affects the lowest lumbar vertebra- L5, or occasionally L4. Most patients are 10-15 years of age when they are diagnosed with the condition, although sometimes symptoms do not present until adulthood. It is more common in those who participate in sports. Some sports predispose children to this problem. Athletes who participate in diving, wrestling, weight lifting, track, football and gymnastics have the highest incidence of spondylolysis.

The pain usually starts in your back but may radiate into your buttock or thigh. Your pain usually intensifies with standing upright for prolonged periods of time or leaning backwards. You should limit movements that involve hyperextension, like leaning backwards. Females should avoid wearing high heels.

Your doctor likely performed x-rays or an MRI to make the diagnosis of spondylolysis. If your doctor has determined that your spondylolysis is new and has a chance of worsening, you may need to stop certain activities or sports for a period of time until your fracture heals. Sometimes a lumbar brace is used to help you recover more quickly.

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