• Clinical science



The term spondylolisthesis defines a condition in which the vertebral bodies slip forward in relation to the vertebrae beneath. Most commonly L5 slips over S1. The disease affects approx. 6–9% of the population. The condition most commonly occurs in children, adolescents, and in individuals > 50 years old. Risk factors are repetitive hyperextension of the spine (e.g., gymnastics), trauma, bone pathologies, or degenerative spine disease. Spondylolisthesis may be asymptomatic or cause lumbar pain on exertion, gait problems, radiculopathic pain, or urinary incontinence. In some patients a step-off at the lumbosacral area is palpable. Diagnosis is established through imaging. Most patients achieve good results with conservative treatment (e.g., physical therapy). Surgical treatment (e.g, vertebral fusion, decompression of the nerves) is reserved for patients with refractory cases and neurologic deficits. Overall, children and adolescents achieve better results than adults and elderly.


  • Affects up to 10% of the population
  • Most common in children < 6 years, 12–17 years (congenital and spondylolytic form) and adults aged > 50 years (degenerative form)
  • Sex: > (congenital and spondylolytic form); > (degenerative form)
  • Defect most commonly occurs in the lumbar spine (L5 in 80% of cases)


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.



Clinical features

  • Asymptomatic (∼ 90% of cases)
  • Chronic lumbar pain that worsens with exertion and/or when reclining
  • Gait problems (e.g., waddling gait)
  • Possibly urinary or bowel incontinence



  • Physical examination
  • Radiologic examination:
    • Conventional x-ray of lumbosacral spine
      • Indication: to evaluate the vertebral structures, the degree and severity of forward slippage, the slip angle, and the presence of concomitant spine pathologies
      • Usually spondylolisthesis is an incidental finding.
      • Specific signs:
        • Scotty dog with a collar sign in spondylolysis: normal appearance of the lumbar spine in an oblique projection at 45° is referred to as "Scotty dog sign" → in spondylolysis, the fracture line appears as the "dog's collar"
  • CT scan: used to rule out other causes of pain (e.g., tumor), in traumatic cases, and to guide surgical treatment.
  • MRI: helps visualize the compression of the nerve roots


Differential diagnoses


The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


The main goals in the treatment of spondylolisthesis are to reduce pain, restore the mobility of the spine, and prevent further disease progression.

  • Conservative treatment
    • Indication: patients with low-grade spondylolisthesis (< 50% slippage of cranial vertebra over the caudal vertebra) and degenerative spondylolisthesis with no neurological deficits
    • Physical therapy emphasizing training of back and abdominal muscles
    • Activity modification: avoid sports which contribute to spondylolisthesis
  • Surgical treatment
    • Indication: high-grade spondylolisthesis (> 50% slippage of cranial vertebra over the caudal vertebra), neurologic deficits, traumatic spondylolisthesis or if symptoms progress despite conservative treatment
    • Standard procedure: vertebral fusion
    • Nerve decompression in the case of radiculopathic pain or bowel/bladder dysfunction



  • Conservative treatment gives satisfactory results in 80% of cases.
  • The rate of success from surgical treatment is higher in children than in adults.


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last updated 11/26/2020
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