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Spondylolisthesis, Spondylolysis, and Spondylosis Treatment & Management

  • Author: Amir Vokshoor, MD; Chief Editor: Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD  more...
Updated: Sep 10, 2014

Medical Therapy

Conservative measures are aimed at symptomatic relief and include the following:

  • Activity modification, bedrest during acute severe exacerbations
  • Analgesics (ie, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs])
  • Bracing
  • Therapeutic strengthening and stretching exercises

The likelihood of successful nonoperative treatment is high, especially in the younger patients. In older patients with low-grade slips resulting from disc degeneration, traction has been used with some success. The authors recommend that any manipulation or traction be performed under the care of a clinician and a physical therapist.

One of the challenging tasks is to treat patients with severe back pain and marginally abnormal radiographs. Such patients may have degenerative disc disease (ie, multilevel disc desiccation observed on MRI) or even low-grade (typically < 25%) slips, and they typically have pain out of proportion to physical or radiographic findings. Back pain in general is a major public health problem and remains a primary cause of disability in this country. Its causes are numerous and no simple diagnostic method exists to exclude structural causes. It is important for any clinician who cares for patients with spinal problems to address behavioral and psychosocial factors that may contribute to a patient's disability.


Surgical Therapy

The goal of surgical treatment in this setting is to decompress the neural elements and immobilize the unstable segment or segments of the spinal column. This is usually performed with elimination of motion across the facet joint and the intervertebral disc through arthrodesis (fusion).[4, 8] See the images below.

Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. The use of direct electrical current for stimulation of fusion has been advocated by some to enhance fusion rates in patients at risk of pseudoarthrosis (ie, persons who smoke).
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Spontaneous reduction of the slip (either partial or complete) has been reported by surgeons using interbody grafts after complete disc excision. In this case, the reduction was achieved immediately after the placement of the carbon fiber interbody device packed with autologous bone. The cage is outlined in Image below.
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Carbon fiber interbody cage used in reduction of the slip

The Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial analyzed the cost-effectiveness of surgery versus nonoperative care in patients with spinal stenosis, degenerative spondylolisthesis, and intervertebral disk herniation.[10] In this trial, surgical therapy overall improved health and provided better value over 4 years as compared with nonoperative care.


Multiple methods exist to achieve intersegmental fusion in the lumbosacral spine.[11] The authors concentrate on the three most widely used methods, as follows:

  • Posterolateral (intertransverse) fusion
  • Lumbar interbody fusion
  • Pars repair

Most surgeons use the intertransverse or transverse process/sacral ala arthrodesis with the use of iliac crest autograft alone or in conjunction with allograft. This may be performed over one or multiple levels with high success rates (up to 90%) of fusion. Some surgeons prefer a two-level fusion (ie, L4>S1) for treating high-grade (>50%) listheses. Segmental spinal instrumentation allows rigid fixation of the fused segments and the possibility of performing reduction of the segment with listhesis.

Biomechanically, lumbar interbody fusion increases the stability of the spinal segment by placing structural bone graft in compression in the anterior and middle columns and increases the overall surface area of the bony fusion. It can be done with posterior (ie, posterior lumbar interbody fusion [PLIF]) or anterior (ie, anterior lumbar interbody fusion [ALIF]) approaches. A growing number of surgeons use interbody grafts to augment their posterolateral fusion techniques to achieve higher rates (>95%) of arthrodesis. It should be noted that grade 2 or higher slips are predisposed to higher rates of graft complications.

In low-grade lytic slips, the pars can be directly repaired with a Scott wiring technique or the Van Dam modification. This preserves segmental motion and has successfully been used to fuse the pseudarthrosis at the pars in selected patients.

Dean et al studied 58 patients who underwent anterior cervical decompression and fusion, with an iliac crest structural graft, for degenerative spondylolisthesis from 1974 to 2003; they were evaluated for neurologic improvement and osseous fusion. The investigators found that the average neurologic improvement was 1.5 Nurick grades and that the overall fusion rate was 92%.[12, 13]


Although the use of spinal instrumentation in skeletally immature patients is considered optional by some surgeons for some patients with isthmic-type spondylolisthesis, most spinal surgeons believe that rigid fixation is needed to achieve a solid fusion reliably. For degenerative-type slips, fixation has been shown to achieve higher rates of solid arthrodesis.


Usually in degenerative or traumatic spondylolisthesis, decompression of the neural elements, both centrally and laterally, over the nerve roots is indicated. Optimal decompression is usually achieved through a posterior laminectomy and total facetectomy with radical decompression of the nerve root (ie, Gill procedure).

In a study by Schaeren et al, decompression and dynamic stabilization showed excellent results, after a follow-up of at least 4 years, in elderly patients with spinal stenosis and degenerative spondylolisthesis. Patient satisfaction was high, with 95% stating they would undergo the procedure again.[3]


Some surgeons attempt to reduce the spondylolisthesis in order improve the overall sagittal alignment and spinal biomechanics. This has the benefit of improving standing posture and placing less strain on the posterior fusion mass and spinal hardware reducing the incidence of nonunion and spondylolisthesis progression. The quoted rate of transient or permanent nerve root injury associated with reduction is 5-30%.


Preoperative Details

The surgeon should plan the approach (anterior vs posterior), the methods of fusion (ie, iliac crest autograft) and fixation (ie, transpedicular screws), and discuss the risks, benefits, and alternatives of each decision with the patient. Patients can require blood transfusions after spinal fusion and should be given the option of predonating their blood for an autologous transfusion. Some surgeons use blood salvage systems that collect the patient's blood lost during surgery for return to the patient in order to try to minimize the need for transfusion.

Recent plain radiographs with flexion and extension views help define the grade of spondylolisthesis and help with the operative approach. Although most spine surgeons are familiar with pedicle screw placement in the lumbosacral region, CT scanning helps determine the diameter and trajectory of each pedicle and can be a useful adjunct to preoperative imaging. This is especially useful in correction of listhesis in thoracic and upper lumbar vertebrae (ie, in traumatic spondylolisthesis).

The use of perioperative antibiotics is mandatory. Studies have demonstrated a lower rate of infection with a single dose of cefazolin given within 30 minutes of the incision. For patients with true allergy to beta-lactams, alternative coverage with macrolides or aminoglycosides can be achieved.

Smoking is associated with a high (up to 50%) nonunion rate, and the cessation of smoking is an essential part of the patient's commitment to the success of the operation.

Antiplatelet therapy should be discontinued 3-5 days prior to the procedure, and perioperative and postoperative use of anti-inflammatory medication is not recommended, as they can inhibit fusion.


Intraoperative Details

Depending on the symptoms (pure nerve root compression vs. mechanical pain due to segmental instability) different operative techniques are available. Simple minimally invasive microdecompression via a very small incision is often successful in low grade slips with a single root involvement. This operation can be achieved through a mini-open microscopic or endoscopic approach releasing the pressure on the traversing and exiting roots through subarticular decompression in the lateral recess. The more classical approach for a definitive posterior fusion and instrumentation is described below:

Through the posterior midline approach, the lumbodorsal fascia is divided, and a subperiosteal dissection of erector spinae muscles is performed over the posterior elements of the involved vertebrae (typically L5 and S1).

Some surgeons prefer the harvesting of iliac crest autograft prior to the fascial opening. This can be performed through the same incision on one or both iliac crests in lumbosacral fusion operations. The fascia overlying the crest is opened. Care is taken to preserve the integrity of the sacroiliac joints. The thickest area for obtaining cancellous bone is decorticated and multiple gouges are used to retrieve the autograft. Hemostasis is obtained and the fascia is closed over a drain.

In type IIa (lytic) slips, the spondylolysis can often be observed by palpation with the hypermobility of the L5 posterior elements and the incompetent pars. The lateral exposure is extended past the lateral facets and to the transverse processes. Self-retaining retractor systems hold the entire exposure accessible to the surgeon. The intertransverse plane is cleaned and a fusion bed for the bone graft is prepared. In fusions involving the sacrum (most lytic types), the sacral ala should be exposed, and the alo-transverse plane is used for the posterolateral fusion.

More minimally invasive solutions would involve approaching each facet via a muscle splitting approach (sparing the midline structures) and directly decompressing the lateral recess directly. This can be combined with minimally invasive fusion and instrumentation of the affected segment. Percutaneous or mini-open instrumentation has also been used with great success.

Decompressive laminectomies and facetectomies are typically initiated with rongeurs (ie, the Leksell rongeur) and completed with high-speed drills. The Gill laminectomy involves complete removal of the posterior elements of L5 and both articular facets. Due to the incompetent pars in type IIa slips, this can be performed with relative ease using large rongeurs. Frequently, the entire loose posterior arch does not need removal, but the ever present remnant that is attached to the pedicle must be removed to ensure adequate decompression of the L5 root. Preserving the posterior arch and grafting across the pars defect resulted in better fusion rates in the Nachemson series. All bone is typically saved and mixed with the cancellous autograft.

After the nerve roots are identified, decompressive foraminotomies are performed following the course of the nerve root through their respective foramina. Depending on the grade of the slip, the exiting nerve root (L5 root in most slips) takes a sharp angle during its course and may be kinked as it exits in the L5-S1 foramen. Distraction and partial reduction of the slip can lessen the amount of stretch that the slip places on the nerve root. However, reports quote an up to 30% rate of nerve root injury resulting from attempted reduction.

Some advocate radical excision of the intervertebral disc to help with the reduction as well as placement of an interbody graft. The risk of transient nerve root injury is slightly higher with this maneuver (reduction;) however, the immediate support afforded by the anterior column support increases the rate of fusion, helps with distraction and reduction, and relieves the acute course of the exiting root. In low grade slips especially of the degenerative type the restoration of the foraminal height provided by the interbody graft helps with the exiting nerve root symptoms.

After adequate decompression of the involved nerve roots, the lateral recesses are inspected, and the medial walls of the pedicles are palpated. Introductory holes are drilled in each of the 4 pedicles, while a probe ensures that the medial wall remains intact. Depending on the instrumentation used, the holes are enlarged and probed; under fluoroscopic guidance, the holes are tapped, and transpedicular screws are placed. The interconnecting rods or plates, depending on the system, are then attached.

At this point, the final distraction and reduction can be achieved before tightening the entire fixation. The wound is irrigated copiously. Some advocate the use of antibiotics in the irrigation. No studies have suggested a lower infection rate as a result of this practice.

The high-speed drill is then used to decorticate the surfaces used for fusion, which are typically the lateral part of the lateral facets, the transverse processes, and the sacral ala. The bone graft is then laid along the prepared fusion bed and compressed. Some surgeons use a variety of pastes with osteoinductive properties to hold the fusion graft and enhance the success of fusion. Long-term results on these materials are being obtained and demonstrate some promise. The wound is then closed in multiple layers with watertight closure of the lumbodorsal fascia over one or two drains.


Postoperative Details

Routine postoperative laboratory tests should include a hematocrit level assessment. A plain anteroposterior and lateral radiograph of the operated segment(s) is recommended. The use of postoperative braces is dependent on surgeon preference.

The patient is mobilized within 24 hours. Adequate pain relief is essential for deep breathing and early ambulation. Involvement of therapists in the patient's initial activities helps encourage and reassure the patient.

Anti-inflammatory medications (ie, steroids, Toradol) are to be avoided since they may interfere with the fusion effort. If the nerve root is injured from traction or manipulation, a short course of tapered steroid therapy is warranted.



After the routine postoperative check in 4-6 weeks, plain radiographs should be performed to evaluate the fusion and fixation if used. The patient is expected to have mild discomfort during normal motion for the first few weeks. High-level athletic activity should be avoided for up to 3 months for the fusion to heal completely.

For excellent patient education resources, see eMedicineHealth's patient education article Back Pain.



Specific complications for lumbar fusion from a posterolateral approach include the following:

  • Injury to the nerve root - The risk is low (< 1%) but increases with more radical facetectomy and posterior lumbar interbody fusion (PLIF) application; more commonly, transient neuropraxia from excessive retraction results in PLIF correction of high-grade spondylolisthesis
  • Cerebrospinal fluid leak - The risk is reported at 2-10%, depending on the series; the highest risks are in revisions and in elderly persons with severe stenosis and friable dura
  • Failure or lack of fusion and/or pseudoarthrosis - This complication occurs in 5-25% of cases; the risk is highest when interbody grafts are placed as standalone devices and lowest with the addition of posterolateral fixation with pedicle screws; smoking increases the failure rate by as much as 50%
  • Failure of fixation - This complication is rare (0.5-3%) and includes interbody graft expulsion or fracture, pedicle screw pull out, fracture, or migration (usually out of the lateral pedicular wall)

General surgical complications such as hemorrhage and infection occur in 1-5% of patients. A risk exists of injuring retroperitoneal structures such as the iliac vessels, the sympathetic chain, or the hypogastric nerves. This risk is obviously higher with anterior approaches (ie, anterior lumbar interbody fusion [ALIF]) but also has been observed during radical excision of the anterior annulus fibrosis and PLIF (ie, posterior lumbar interbody fusion [PLIF]) procedures.


Outcome and Prognosis

Lumbar fusion is being performed with more frequency across the United States, with considerable regional variation. These variations have been attributed to a multitude of factors, from advancements in instrumentation to the understanding of bone healing. Lack of clearly defined indications for fusion has been another contributing factor. The evidence in support of fusion for spondylolistheses types I, II, IV, and V and iatrogenic spondylolisthesis is strong. Some controversy exists regarding persons with degenerative-type slips (type III), degenerative scoliosis, and mechanical back pain.

Very few prospective randomized trials are assessing the long-term outcome of lumbar fusion in these patients. Variables used to evaluate the effectiveness of this procedure have included patient level of function, pain, satisfaction, return to work, and quality of life. Radiographic confirmation of fusion, complications, and cost are other important criteria in the evaluation of the overall outcome.

Zdeblick et al performed a prospective randomized study, which confirmed that the addition of rigid posterior instrumentation increases the rate of fusion and correlates with less pain and a greater rate of returning to work.[14, 15]

In contrast, Franklin retrospectively evaluated the outcome of lumbar fusion in patients receiving Workers' Compensation in Washington state. They found 68% of patients experienced worsening of back and leg pain, and 56% reported their quality of life had not improved or was worse. They concluded that the use of instrumentation doubled the risk of a second surgical procedure. Ironically, 62% reported they would undergo the surgery again. The influence of psychosocial factors must be considered in any outcome study, and this retrospective study demonstrates that indeed it is difficult to ascertain whether a poor result is due to inappropriate patient selection process, surgical procedure, or failure of outcome measurement. Prospective studies with clearly defined diagnostic categories would probably produce the greatest improvement to the outcome of lumbar fusions.[16]

In a prospective study of degenerative slips, Herkowitz showed that an attempted fusion gave better clinical outcomes than decompression alone.[17]

The results on isthmic-type spondylolisthesis have been the most promising. Most investigators report a 75-95% rate of good-to-excellent outcome. Most patients undergoing surgery report an improvement in the quality of life and level of pain. Surprisingly, the outcome in most studies does not correlate with the degree of spondylolisthesis or the slip angle. Some long-term follow-up studies support conservative treatment of asymptomatic children and teenagers with spondylolisthesis (type I, type II), regardless of the grade; however, most investigators advocate fusion when the slip is symptomatic, unresponsive to conservative measures, or when it is high grade.

Data from the Spine Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT) study were analyzed to determine if duration of symptoms affects outcomes after treatment of spinal stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis. In spinal stenosis patients with symptoms for more than 12 months, outcomes were worse compared with spinal stenosis patients with symptoms for fewer than 12 months, who experienced significantly better surgical and nonsurgical treatment outcomes. On the same basis of symptom duration before treatment, no differences were noted in outcomes for degenerative spondylolisthesis patients.[18]


Future and Controversies

As the understanding of spinal instability and biology of bone healing increases, we will be able to better define the population of patients with spondylolisthesis that would benefit most from lumbar fusion or particular methods of fusion and fixation.

The production of bone morphogenic protein is only one of the promising ventures that undoubtedly will affect the outcome of lumbar fusion. Advances in technology allowing for better instrumentation are here, and more are anticipated. Artificial discs and lordotic tapered cage devices are 2 of these advances undergoing investigations; they clearly will affect the technical aspects of the operation. The use of bone growth stimulators is a potentially useful tool for higher fusion rates, although long-term studies are not yet available. Osteoinductive pastes and other semisolid mixtures have been introduced to the market; they also promise to enhance the success of this operation.

Although the technology continues to improve how surgery is performed, the most challenging task is simply optimal patient selection. As the authors stated earlier, clear indications for fusion must be present in order to optimize outcome, and controversies still exist especially in the treatment of degenerative spondylolisthesis, which must be resolved in a methodic and scientific manner. Prospective randomized studies with independent evaluators probably will produce the greatest improvement to the outcome of lumbar fusions.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Amir Vokshoor, MD Staff Neurosurgeon, Department of Neurosurgery, Spine Surgeon, Diagnostic and Interventional Spinal Care, St John's Health Center

Amir Vokshoor, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, North American Spine Society, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

William O Shaffer, MD Orthopedic Spine Surgeon, Northwest Iowa Bone, Joint, and Sports Surgeons

William O Shaffer, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, Kentucky Medical Association, North American Spine Society, Kentucky Orthopaedic Society, International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine, Southern Medical Association, Southern Orthopaedic Association

Disclosure: Received royalty from DePuySpine 1997-2007 (not presently) for consulting; Received grant/research funds from DePuySpine 2002-2007 (closed) for sacropelvic instrumentation biomechanical study; Received grant/research funds from DePuyBiologics 2005-2008 (closed) for healos study just closed; Received consulting fee from DePuySpine 2009 for design of offset modification of expedium.

Chief Editor

Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, New York University School of Medicine; Director of Spine Service, Director of Spine Fellowship, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, NYU Langone Medical Center

Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, North American Spine Society, Scoliosis Research Society, Cervical Spine Research Society, International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine, AOSpine, Society of Lateral Access Surgery, International Society for the Advancement of Spine Surgery, Lumbar Spine Research Society

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Medtronic for consulting; Received consulting fee from NuVasive for consulting; Received royalty from Nuvasive for consulting; Received consulting fee from K2M for consulting; Received ownership interest from NuVasive for none.

Additional Contributors

Lee H Riley III, MD Chief, Division of Orthopedic Spine Surgery, Associate Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Isthmic spondylolisthesis (type IIa) with grade 2 slippage of L5 over S1 and spondylolysis (lytic pars defect) is depicted posteriorly.
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Although interbody devices afford immediate stability to the anterior column, their use as stand-alone devices has been associated with pseudoarthrosis. Thus, concomitant posterior fixation is often used to augment their stability.
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. The use of direct electrical current for stimulation of fusion has been advocated by some to enhance fusion rates in patients at risk of pseudoarthrosis (ie, persons who smoke).
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Spontaneous reduction of the slip (either partial or complete) has been reported by surgeons using interbody grafts after complete disc excision. In this case, the reduction was achieved immediately after the placement of the carbon fiber interbody device packed with autologous bone. The cage is outlined in Image below.
Spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis, and spondylosis. Carbon fiber interbody cage used in reduction of the slip
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