Spondylolisthesis: Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Learn more about what causes spondylolisthesis and how to treat it with tips and exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 2, 2024
man-sitting-in-trunk-with-back-pain

Spondylolisthesis: Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Learn more about what causes spondylolisthesis and how to treat it with tips and exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 2, 2024
man-sitting-in-trunk-with-back-pain

Spondylolisthesis: Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Learn more about what causes spondylolisthesis and how to treat it with tips and exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 2, 2024
man-sitting-in-trunk-with-back-pain

Spondylolisthesis: Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Learn more about what causes spondylolisthesis and how to treat it with tips and exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 2, 2024
man-sitting-in-trunk-with-back-pain
Table of Contents

Spondylolisthesis (pronounced spaan-duh-low-luhs-thee-suhs) is a mouthful that sounds pretty serious, but this somewhat common cause of low back pain isn’t as complicated as it seems. It essentially means instability in the spine, and anyone from a young athlete to an older adult with osteoarthritis has the potential to develop it. 

Fortunately, most of the time, symptoms associated with spondylolisthesis aren't hard to treat, as conservative methods including physical therapy usually help a lot, says Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. 

Read on to learn about what causes spondylolisthesis and how to get relief with help from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kimbrough is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Is Spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis results when one of the vertebrae in the spine (“spondy” refers to spine) shifts its position (“listhesis” means slippage). Spondylolisthesis can affect any vertebrae along the spine, but it's most common in the lumbar spine (low back). 

You may have heard of other similar conditions, like spondylosis (osteoarthritis of the spine) or spondyloarthritis (inflammatory arthritis of the spine). In the case of spondylolisthesis, instability is the main problem.

“Spondylolisthesis can simply be part of natural changes in the spine, but it also can be the result of a change or fracture in the pars interarticularis, which is a small piece of bone that links each vertebra to the vertebra beneath it,” Dr. Kimbrough explains. “If it gets fractured or otherwise disrupted, the vertebra can slip forward and out of alignment.” 

This displacement isn’t always painful. If a vertebra has shifted only slightly, you might not even know it. If the affected vertebra irritates nearby nerves, however, it can lead to back pain that may also radiate down the legs. 

Spondylolisthesis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Learning about conditions that cause pain can be scary, and the prospect of hearing that any of your vertebrae have moved position can be understandably alarming. But we know from Hinge Health members and research studies that anatomical labels can backfire when it comes to your treatment and recovery. When people hear they may have a condition like spondylolisthesis, it can cause feelings of panic, like you have something "wrong" that needs to be fixed. This way of thinking about pain is largely outdated.

For most common musculoskeletal conditions, regardless of what may or may not be contributing to pain, the solution is often the same. Movement — through physical and exercise therapy — can build strength, flexibility, and resilience to pain in and around the spine. 

Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Spondylolisthesis is a big word that sounds scary, but most people with it respond really well to conservative treatments.

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Dr. Kimbrough notes that the only way to definitively diagnose this problem is to have an imaging test, like an X-ray, but this kind of workup is not always essential. Physical therapists can usually help based on symptoms as well as information about what preceded the discomfort. Research has shown that the overwhelming majority of patients with mild spondylolisthesis — about 84% — improve with conservative care like physical therapy.

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Symptoms of Spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis symptoms can vary depending on the severity and location of the affected vertebra. For some people, the condition doesn’t cause any pain. If you do experience symptoms, they’ll often include: 

  • Low back pain that’s worse when standing or walking for long periods of time (versus sitting)

  • Stiffness in the low back

  • Tight hamstrings (muscles behind your thighs); you may also notice spasms

  • Pain, numbness, or tingling that goes from your lower back down one leg (if the shift impacts a nerve and causes sciatica)

Causes of Spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis is rarely the result of just one cause and is often due to a combination of factors, including:

  • Sports-related injuries. “Some cases of spondylolisthesis stem from back injuries related to sports, particularly those that involve a lot of hyperextension of the spine,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Gymnastics and weight lifting are common culprits. So is football and wrestling (falling on your stomach can also cause vertebrae to slip forward).

  • Trauma, like a car accident or a fall. Injury to the spine, such as fractures or stress fractures, can cause instability and contribute to spondylolisthesis.

  • Genetics. Some people may be born with slight variations in the structure of their spine, such as defective facet joints or elongated pars interarticularis (part of the vertebra). This can make some more likely to develop spondylolisthesis in the future. 

  • Age-related changes. Osteoarthritis and other age-related changes to the spine may lead to spondylolisthesis.

No matter why spondylolisthesis develops, there’s a lot you can do to manage the symptoms.

Treatment Options for Spondylolisthesis Symptoms

Spondylolisthesis ranges from low grade (mild) to severe (high grade), depending on how far the alignment of a vertebra has shifted. Most mild to moderate cases respond to conservative treatment, says Dr. Kimbrough. Treatment options include:

  • Activity modification. It’s generally wise to keep moving as much as possible, says Dr. Kimbrough, but you may have to temporarily pull back on pain-provoking activities. Limit back-bending motions (especially extension), high-impact activities, and heavy lifting until the pain subsides.

  • Ice or heat. Both hot and cold therapy can help you manage lower back pain resulting from spondylolisthesis. Applying ice can help reduce swelling and inflammation, while a hot compress can help relax tense muscles near the affected vertebrae. Whichever feels best and most soothing to you is fine, says Dr. Kimbrough.

  • Over-the-counter pain medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for pain related to spondylolisthesis. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Bracing. “I don’t often recommend bracing for this problem, but some patients might benefit from temporarily wearing a brace that goes around their waist at the lower part of the spine,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “It might give you a little support and decrease symptoms.” This may also help you feel strong and stable enough to move with confidence. But remember to exercise without the brace as well to help build strength along your back and spine.

  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy for spondylolisthesis aims to stretch and strengthen surrounding muscles, including those in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and core muscles that wrap around your front and back. Most patients with mild to moderate slippage of vertebrae will benefit from a physical therapy program, says Dr. Kimbrough.

  • Surgery. If conservative treatments including physical therapy don’t help, or if your vertebrae have shifted significantly (high-grade spondylolisthesis), then surgery may be recommended. Surgery for spondylolisthesis typically entails spinal fusion, during which two vertebrae are joined together to increase stability.

PT-Recommended Exercises for Spondylolisthesis

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Pelvic Tilts
  • Bent Hollow Hold
  • Knee Hug
  • Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Any physical activity can be helpful for spondylolisthesis, but a physical therapist can suggest movements that target the spine and surrounding muscles to improve flexibility, promote spinal stability, and alleviate symptoms while also aiding in preventing further changes to the spine. The following exercises, often recommended by Hinge Health therapists, are a great place to start.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Stretch it Out

Spondylolisthesis often makes standing and walking for long periods uncomfortable, but taking a break to stretch your back can help a lot, says Dr. Kimbrough. “Simply bending forward can take some pressure off your back and provide relief,” she says. Just bend down toward your toes (touch them if you can) and hold for a few seconds. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here. This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Spondylolisthesis Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments. (n.d.). Precision Brain, Spine & Pain Centre. Retrieved from https://www.precisionhealth.com.au/healthcare-services/pain-management/conditions-treated/spinal-conditions/spondylolisthesis/ 

  2. Pars Defect. (n.d.). Spines Dorset. Retrieved from https://spinesdorset.com/conditions/pars_defect 

  3. Spondylolisthesis. (n.d.). Cedars-Sinai. Retrieved from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/s/spondylolisthesis.html 

  4. Klein, G., Mehlman, C. T., & McCarty, M. (2009). Nonoperative Treatment of Spondylolysis and Grade I Spondylolisthesis in Children and Young Adults. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 29(2), 146–156. doi:10.1097/bpo.0b013e3181977fc5

  5. Spondylolisthesis Treatment, Surgery & Symptoms. (2020, August 7). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10302-spondylolisthesis 

  6. Spondylolisthesis. (2022, January). Kidshealth.org. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/spondylolisthesis.html 

  7. Surgery for Spondylolisthesis. (n.d.). NYU Langone Health. https://nyulangone.org/conditions/spondylolisthesis/treatments/surgery-for-spondylolisthesis