Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis

What are spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are problems in the lower part of your backbone. Your lower backbone is made up of 5 bones called the lumbar vertebrae. Each bone has 2 main parts: a solid part called the body, and a bony ring through which the spinal cord and nerves travel. Between the bodies of the bones are rubbery, shock-absorbing disks.

Spondylolysis is a break in one or both sides of the ring of a vertebra. If the body of one of the vertebrae has slipped out of place because of a break in the ring, it is called spondylolisthesis.

What is the cause?

Breaks in the rings of the vertebrae are caused by stress on these bones. These stress fractures usually result from activities that involve a lot of bending forward and backward. The rings of the lower backbones get weaker and can break. Sometimes an injury to the back is the cause. Gymnasts, dancers, weight lifters, and football players are most often diagnosed with these conditions.

You have a higher risk for this type of fracture if you were born with weak bones.

What are the symptoms?

You may have no symptoms at all or you may have low back pain or spasms. A spasm is a sudden tightening of the muscles that you cannot control. You may have pain all of the time or only from time to time.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, activities, and medical history and examine you. You may have X-rays or other scans.

How is it treated?

Severe cases of spondylolisthesis may require surgery. If the fracture is new and your healthcare provider thinks that the bones can heal without surgery, you may need to wear a brace for 1 to 3 months.

Your healthcare provider may recommend stretching and exercises to help you heal.

How can I take care of myself?

To help relieve swelling and pain:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on your lower back every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.

Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions, including any exercises recommended by your provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent these conditions?

Here are some of the things you can do to help prevent back problems:

  • Do warm-up exercises and stretching before activities to help prevent injuries.
  • Do exercises that strengthen your back and belly muscles.
  • Avoid activities that force the back to extend, such as tackling in football.
  • Keep a healthy weight. Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Follow safety rules and use any protective equipment recommended for your work or sport.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-15
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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