Understanding treatment approaches for spondylolisthesis


What is Spondylolisthesis, and How Does it Occur? 

Spondylolisthesis is a spinal condition characterized by the forward displacement of one vertebra over the vertebra below it. This displacement can occur due to various factors, with the two primary types being:

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  • Isthmic Spondylolisthesis: This occurs when there is a defect in the bony structures of the spine, often resulting from stress fractures in the pars interarticularis, a small bridge of bone that connects the facet joints.
  • Degenerative Spondylolisthesis : This form is more common in older adults and is associated with the natural aging process, where the intervertebral discs lose their elasticity, and the facet joints undergo degenerative changes.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Spondylolisthesis?

The symptoms of spondylolisthesis can vary depending on the degree of slippage and the presence of nerve compression. Common symptoms include:

  • Lower back pain : Persistent discomfort in the lower back, which may be exacerbated by certain movements.
  • Stiffness : Limited flexibility in the spine, especially when bending or twisting.
  • Muscle tightness : Tension or tightness in the muscles surrounding the affected vertebrae.
  • Nerve compression symptoms : In more severe cases, individuals may experience radiating pain, tingling, or weakness in the legs.

Can Spondylolisthesis Be Treated Without Surgery?

Yes, many cases of spondylolisthesis can be effectively managed without resorting to surgery. Non-surgical treatments include:

  • Physical Therapy : Targeted exercises to strengthen the core muscles and improve spinal stability.
  • Pain Medications : Over-the-counter or prescription medications to alleviate pain and inflammation.
  • Activity Modification : Avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms and adopting ergonomic practices.
  • Bracing : In some cases, a brace may be recommended to provide support and stability to the spine.
  • Image guided interventions : Epidural , Sacroiliac and Facet Joint Injections may be considered for targeting specific causes of pain like a pinched nerve due to a disc, facet joint arthritis or Sacroiliac joint dysfunction/arthritis on the same side.


Spondylolisthesis, though a potentially challenging condition, often responds well to non-surgical interventions. Early diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan, guided by healthcare professionals, can significantly improve symptoms and enhance the overall quality of life for individuals dealing with spondylolisthesis.

How Effective is Physical Therapy in Treating Spondylolisthesis?

Physical therapy stands as a cornerstone in the non-surgical management of spondylolisthesis, offering a holistic approach to enhance spinal stability, alleviate pain, and improve overall functionality.

Mechanisms of Effectiveness

  • Muscle Strengthening : Targeted exercises focus on strengthening the core muscles, particularly the abdominal and back muscles, providing enhanced support to the spine.
  • Improved Flexibility : Physical therapy aims to enhance flexibility, addressing stiffness associated with spondylolisthesis and promoting a more extensive range of motion.
  • Research Insight : A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy highlighted that a structured physical therapy program significantly reduced pain and improved functional outcomes in individuals with lumbar spondylolisthesis.

Are There Specific Exercises to Avoid if I Have Spondylolisthesis?

While exercise is a vital component of spondylolisthesis management, certain movements may exacerbate symptoms and should be approached with caution. Exercises to avoid include:

  • Hyperextension Exercises : Movements that excessively arch the lower back, such as deep backbends, may strain the spine and increase slippage.
  • Heavy Weightlifting : Activities that place undue stress on the spine, especially heavy lifting with improper form, should be minimized.
  • High-Impact Activities : Jumping and activities that involve sudden jolts or impacts can worsen symptoms.
  • Consultation with a physical therapist or healthcare provider is crucial to design an exercise program tailored to individual needs and limitations.

What are the investigations used in the diagnosis of spondylolisthesis?

Clinical Evaluation

  • Patient History : Understanding the patient’s medical history, including the onset and nature of symptoms, previous injuries, and any relevant familial predispositions.
  • Physical Examination : Assessing the patient’s posture, range of motion, and neurological function to identify signs such as muscle weakness, sensory changes, or reflex abnormalities.

Imaging Studies

  • X-rays : X-rays are commonly used to visualize the spine and detect spondylolisthesis. Anteroposterior (AP) and lateral views help in assessing the degree of slippage and the overall alignment of the spine.
  • CT Scan (Computed Tomography) : CT scans provide detailed cross-sectional images of the spine, offering a more comprehensive view of bony structures and potential fractures.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) : MRI is valuable for assessing soft tissues, such as intervertebral discs, ligaments, and nerve roots. It can reveal any compression of neural structures.
  • Dynamic Flexion-Extension X-rays : These specialized X-rays are taken while the patient flexes and extends their spine. They help assess the stability of the affected vertebral segment during movement.
  • Bone Scan : In some cases, a bone scan may be recommended to identify areas of increased bone activity, indicating potential stress fractures or inflammation.

Nerve Conduction Studies and Electromyography (EMG)

These tests may be conducted if there are indications of nerve compression or radiculopathy. Nerve conduction studies assess the speed and strength of nerve signals, while EMG measures muscle activity.

SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography)

SPECT imaging can be used to identify areas of increased bone activity, providing insights into potential stress fractures or areas of instability.

Bone Density Testing

Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans may be performed to assess bone density, especially in cases where osteoporosis may contribute to spondylolisthesis.

Is Surgery the Only Option for Severe Spondylolisthesis?

Surgery is typically reserved for severe cases of spondylolisthesis or when conservative measures fail to provide relief. Surgical options may include:

  • Spinal Fusion : A procedure that aims to stabilize the affected vertebrae by fusing them together, preventing further slippage.
  • Laminectomy : Removal of the lamina (back part of the vertebra) to relieve pressure on nerves.
  • Studies, such as those published in the European Spine Journal, emphasize that while surgery can be effective, it is generally considered when non-surgical interventions do not adequately address severe symptoms or neurological complications.

How Long Does Recovery Take After Spondylolisthesis Surgery?

Spondylolisthesis surgery involves a period of recovery that varies based on several factors, including the type of surgery performed, the severity of the condition, and individual healing capacities.

Key Factors Influencing Recovery Time

  • Type of Surgery : More extensive procedures, such as spinal fusion, may require a more extended recovery period compared to less invasive interventions.
  • Individual Healing : Factors like overall health, adherence to postoperative care, and lifestyle choices contribute to the pace of recovery.
  • A study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery : Spine reported that patients undergoing minimally invasive surgery for degenerative spondylolisthesis experienced a faster recovery and shorter hospital stay compared to traditional open surgery.

Can Spondylolisthesis Affect Daily Activities Like Sitting or Standing for Prolonged Periods?

Yes, spondylolisthesis can impact daily activities, particularly those involving prolonged sitting or standing. Common challenges include

  • Discomfort : Prolonged periods of sitting may exacerbate lower back pain, while standing for extended durations can strain the spine.
  • Stiffness : Individuals with spondylolisthesis may experience stiffness, affecting their ability to maintain comfortable positions.
  • A review in the European Spine Journal emphasized that understanding and managing the impact of spondylolisthesis on daily activities are crucial components of comprehensive treatment plans.

What Role Does Bracing Play in Treating Spondylolisthesis?

Bracing is occasionally recommended as part of the treatment plan for spondylolisthesis, especially in cases where there is a risk of progression or to provide additional support during the healing process.

Bracing Objectives

  • Stabilization : A brace aims to stabilize the spine and reduce the risk of further slippage.
  • Symptom Relief : Bracing may alleviate pain and discomfort associated with spondylolisthesis.

Expert Recommendations

According to a study in the Journal of Spinal Disorders & Techniques, bracing can be particularly beneficial for adolescents with spondylolisthesis, helping to manage symptoms and prevent progression.

Are There Lifestyle Changes That Can Help Manage Spondylolisthesis?

Adopting certain lifestyle modifications can contribute significantly to the management of spondylolisthesis, enhancing overall well-being. Recommendations include

  • Maintaining a Healthy Weight : Excess weight can strain the spine, so weight management is crucial.
  • Regular Exercise : Engaging in low-impact exercises, under the guidance of healthcare professionals, can strengthen supporting muscles and improve flexibility.
  • Ergonomics : Paying attention to posture, using supportive chairs, and avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms.
  • A review in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons highlighted the positive impact of lifestyle modifications, emphasizing their role in symptom management and overall spinal health.


Navigating life with spondylolisthesis involves a combination of early diagnosis,suitable  interventions, understanding the impact on daily activities, back strengthening excercises, incorporating bracing when necessary, and embracing lifestyle changes. Individualized care and a multidisciplinary approach as practiced at Alleviate Pain Clinic, play pivotal roles in optimizing outcomes for individuals managing spondylolisthesis.


  1. Wiltse LL, Newman PH, Macnab I. Classification of spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1976;(117):23-29. doi:10.1097/00003086-197611000-00007
  2. Kalichman L, Kim DH, Li L, Guermazi A, Berkin V, O’Donnell CJ, Hoffmann U, Cole R, Hunter DJ. Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis: prevalence and association with low back pain in the adult community-based population. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 Jul 15;34(16):199-205. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181a01b3f. PMID: 19770614.
  3. Jacobsen S, Sonne-Holm S, Rovsing H, Monrad H, Gebuhr P. Degenerative lumbar spondylolisthesis: an epidemiological perspective: the Copenhagen Osteoarthritis Study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2007 May 1;32(10):120-5. doi: 10.1097/01.brs.0000255075.15935.5d. PMID: 17471093.

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