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Physical Therapist's Guide to Spondylolysis

Spondylolysis (spon-dee-low-lye-sis) is a stress fracture of a section of the lumbar spine; most frequently the fifth vertebrae. The injury can occur on the left, the right, or both sides of the vertebrae. Spondylolysis occurs in up to 11.5% of the general population in the United States, and is most frequently seen in young males. Spondylolysis is a common cause of low back pain experienced in late childhood and adolescence. Highly active teens, both boys and girls who engage in activities that require lifting heavy loads, repeated backward bending of the back, or twisting of the trunk, are most at risk for spondylolysis, including athletes participating in activities like football, hockey, gymnastics, or dance. Only a small percentage of cases of spondylolysis require surgery, and 85% to 90% of young patients recover in 3 to 6 months with proper treatment.

Spondylolisthesis (spon-dee-low-lis-thee-sis) describes the forward slippage of a vertebrae over the vertebrae beneath it. Because the mechanism of injury, age of the patient, symptoms, and treatment are similar for both conditions, spondylolysis and spondylolesthesis are often described together.

Physical therapists provide education, pain reduction, activity modification, and cross-training to aid healing for patients with these conditions. A physical therapist can help you increase your spine and leg flexibility, strengthen your core muscles, and return to your sport, work, and recreational activities without a recurrence of symptoms.

What is Spondyloysis?

Spondylolysis is a stress fracture of the pars interarticularis, part of the bony ring that connects the front part of the spinal column to its back portion. Specifically, the fracture occurs between the spinous process (bony protrusion that sticks out the back of the spine) and the transverse process (bony protrusion that sticks out of the side of the spine). Excessive strain on the lumbar vertebrae due to repetitive activities in a growing child can cause injury to the vertebrae, resulting in low back pain.

Spondylolisthesis is the forward slip of a defective, unstable vertebrae. There are five grades of slips, with grade I being the smallest amount of slip and grade V being a slip of 100%. Nonsurgical management is most successful with patients who have a defect on only 1 side of the vertebrae and those patients with a grade II or less slip. Young athletes whose adolescent growth spurt has not yet occurred are at greater risk for continued slippage and are monitored until they stop growing.

Key points to understand about spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis:

  • Early detection and proper diagnosis of these conditions is important because return to sport or an active lifestyle can occur within 3 to 6 months with early diagnosis. With prolonged symptoms and a delayed diagnosis, healing may take up to a year.
  • The majority of symptoms resolve with rest, with or without the use of a back brace or activity modifications.
  • Surgery may be indicated when conservative treatment of greater than 6 months fails and debilitating symptoms persist.
  • Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis need to be ruled out in a young athlete who is experiencing low back pain for more than a few weeks. Active young athletes who participate in sports, such as football, hockey, gymnastics, and dance are at the greatest risk of developing the conditions, especially while growing.
  • A negative x-ray reading requires additional imaging to rule out early injury to the vertebrae if clinical exam findings suggest a high probability of spondylolysis.
  • Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are not a major cause of low back pain in adults, except in high-level athletes engaging in high-risk sports.

Signs and Symptoms

Spondylolysis may be present if you are experiencing:

  • Low back pain with or without buttock or leg pain (If leg pain is present, it radiates into the thigh, but generally not below the knee.)
  • Muscle spasms in your low back, buttocks, and thighs
  • Difficulty or pain with walking or prolonged standing
  • Symptoms that are relieved by sitting, slouching, or bending forward
  • Pain with sports or manual labor
  • Pain with bending backwards, twisting the spine, or with throwing
  • Decreased flexibility of the leg muscles

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes taking your health history. Your therapist may ask:

  • How long you have had the pain, and whether it came on suddenly or gradually
  • If the pain occurs with activity or at rest, or during the day or night
  • What activities or positions make the pain better or worse
  • If you engage in high-risk activities that may cause injury to your vertebrae
  • If you can point with 1 finger to the area on your back that is painful
  • If you are having any other symptoms, such as fever, chills, or night sweats
  • If you have difficulty maintaining control over your bowel and bladder

Additionally, your physical therapist will perform objective tests and measures to identify movement, flexibility, or strength factors that may be contributing to your pain. Specifically, the therapist may watch you walk, have you bend forward to touch your toes, bend back as far as you can, stand on 1 leg and bend back, and turn your trunk from side to side. Your physical therapist will assess your leg and spine flexibility as well as your core strength, and ask you if the testing changes your symptoms. Your therapist may gently press areas of your back to see if they are painful. All the information gathered helps determine the cause of your pain and the best treatment to resolve your symptoms.

Diagnosing spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis can be challenging. If stress fracture is suspected, your therapist will refer you to an orthopedist or sports medicine physician familiar with back injuries. The physician may order further imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other spine conditions.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

In the beginning, when you are in pain and having difficulty performing your normal daily routine, your physical therapist can:

  • Show you how to rest the injured vertebrae, use lumbar bracing, modify your activities, and avoid painful movements
  • Help you reduce and manage your pain symptoms
  • Help you maintain fitness while healing, through pain-free cross-training, such as aquatic therapy
  • Initiate symptom-free hamstring stretching and activation of your core muscles, either in or out of a back brace

When you are pain free, and the healing of your injured structures has begun, your physical therapist can help you:

  • Improve the flexibility of your hip and leg muscles
  • Improve your core and leg strength
  • Improve your spine flexibility
  • Prepare for a return to sport or work activities by improving your overall fitness levels
  • Begin a gradual progression of higher-risk movements, such as back extension and trunk rotation to reduce the chance of re-injury

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Spondylolysis and some types of spondylolisthesis may be preventable by educating individuals who are at higher risk of acquiring an injury on how it can be prevented.

For the growing young athlete, monitoring exercise volume, intensity, and frequency is necessary. Coaches or parents should:

  • Limit participation to 1 high-risk sport at a time during a season
  • Limit participation to 1 team at a time during a season
  • Enforce 1 to 2 days of rest from training per week
  • Gradually increase training volume, intensity, and frequency when starting out

Additionally, bone health and overall well-being are improved by ensuring proper rest, nutrition, and hydration while participating in high levels of activity.

Real Life Experiences

Jake is a 15-year-old athlete who plays shortstop on his high school baseball team. One day while batting, Jake feels pain in his lower back. Gradually, as the season progresses, Jake's back pain worsens; the pain is now constant and present even when he is not playing baseball. Jake's father takes him to see a physical therapist.

During the evaluation, Jake's father notes that Jake has grown 4 inches in the past year, and during last weekend's 2-day baseball tournament, Jake's pain was so bad, he was unable to participate in the final game.

Jake's physical therapist notes that he bends slightly forward over his legs when he walks. When he's asked to bend forward and touch his toes, Jake reports a reduction in his symptoms. When he stands up straight and bends backwards, he reports an increase in pain in his left lower back and buttocks. Jake explains that twisting his trunk when he is batting is really painful, and rates it a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale. Jake is unable to lie on his stomach without his symptoms increasing. His physical therapist is concerned that he may have a lumbar stress fracture.

She refers Jake to a sports medicine physician who treats young athletes. Multiple x-rays are taken and show a stress fracture on the left pars interarticularis. Spondylolysis is diagnosed. The doctor recommends that Jake wear a hard-shell brace for 3 months.

Several weeks later, Jake is pain free and is referred back to physical therapy for rehabilitation. His physical therapist helps him gradually remove his brace without experiencing a return of symptoms. She teaches him gentle hamstring-stretching and core-strengthening exercises. He begins improving his cardiovascular conditioning with interval stationary bike riding. He continues to be pain free as harder, more dynamic and challenging core exercises are introduced. Jake begins a running program, and practices simulated batting and throwing movements. After a few months, he is allowed to return to baseball practice for 1 hour every other day. With the continuation of pain-free practice, Jake increases his practice volume and intensity weekly. By the end of 5 months, Jake has returned to playing baseball without pain or restrictions. He can now bend his back in any direction without pain, and feels "more athletic." Jake looks forward to full participation in next year's baseball season!

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis. However, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with spine injuries and/or athletes. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic or sports physical therapy focus.
  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic and/or sports physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who are athletes or active individuals with lumbar stress fractures.
  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Sundell CG, Jonsson H, Adin L, Larsen KH. Clinical examination, spondylolysis and adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Med. 2013;34(3):263-267. Article Summary on PubMed.

A patient's guide to Spondylolysis/Spondylolisthesis. University of Maryland Medical Center Spine Center website. Published 2003. Updated June 20, 2013.

Lumbosacral spondylolysis treatment & management. Medscape Reference. Updated August 27, 2013.

Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis in the pediatric patient: an interview with surgeon Daniel W. Green, MD. Hospital for Special Surgery website. Published February 4, 2009. Updated December 12, 2012.

Kim HJ, Green DW. Spondylolysis in the adolescent athlete. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2011;23(1):68-72. Article Summary on PubMed.

Syrmou E, Tsitsopoulos PP, Marinopoulos D, et al. Spondylolysis: a review and reappraisal. Hippokratia. 2010;14(1):17-21. Free Article.

Kalichman L, Kim DH, Li L, et al. Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis: prevalence and association with low back pain in the adult community-based population. Spine(Phila Pa 1976). 2009;34(2):199-205. Free Article.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Donna Merkel, PTReviewed by the editorial board.

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