Lumbar Spondylolisthesis

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 isthmic spondylolisthesis” describes a condition where your arch has broken free from its anchor on the vertebral body, allowing the vertebral body to slide forward. Lumbar spondylolisthesis typically affects the lowest lumbar vertebra, L5, or occasionally the second lowest, L4.

The condition is sometimes caused by trauma, but more often follows a “stress fracture” involving the arch of the vertebra. This break and slippage is thought to result from repetitive movements, especially hyperextension (arching back) and rotation. The break usually happens during childhood but does not always cause symptoms when it occurs. Many times, the condition will lie dormant until later in life. Lumbar spondylolisthesis is present in six to seven percent of the population and affects males twice as often as females. The problem is more common in those who participate in sports. Some sports predispose children to this “break and slip”. Athletes who participate in gymnastics, rowing, diving, football, wrestling, weight lifting, swimming, tennis, volleyball, and track & field throwing sports (i.e. discus, shot put, etc) are at greatest risk.

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, especially during heavy activity. Some women report increased symptoms during the later stages of pregnancy. Be sure to tell your doctor if you notice pain, numbness or tingling in your groin, a loss of bowel or bladder function, fever, night sweats, pain extending beyond your knee, or weakness in your legs.

Your doctor will “grade” your spondylolisthesis based on the percent of the vertebral body that has slipped forward. Your doctor will try to determine if your spondylolisthesis is “active”, meaning a recent break or “inactive”, referring to a long-standing problem. If your doctor has determined that your spondylolisthesis 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. Patients with a long-standing “inactive” spondylolisthesis may benefit from a combination of treatments including stretching and strengthening. You should limit leaning backwards or sleeping on your stomach. Females should avoid wearing high heels.

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