The terms spondylosis and spondylolisthesis are two medical terms that sound the same, but actually refer to two different spine disorders. It’s easy to get confused by these terms, particularly because they share a root word – spondylos – which is the Greek word for “vertebra.”
Of the two spine condition terms, spondylosis can be the most difficult to clearly define because some physicians often use it as an umbrella term to describe any form of degeneration of the spine. Others use it to specifically describe the presence of osteoarthritis in either the cervical (neck) or lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. Since the term can be used so broadly, it doesn’t definitively point to a patient’s source of pain and other symptoms when listed as a diagnosis.
Spondylolisthesis, on the other hand, is a specific spine condition involving the forward slippage of a vertebra over the vertebra below it. The condition most often occurs in the lower levels of the lumbar spine.
Degeneration of the spine is a natural occurrence in all people as they age, and most individuals will exhibit some form of degeneration on a diagnostic image test (MRI, CT scan, X-ray, etc.) by the age of 40. Normal wear and tear, chemical changes, and other factors contribute to the deterioration of the spine’s soft tissues, namely the intervertebral discs and cartilaginous material that lines the facet joints (where vertebrae link together).
Over time, the normally pliable discs that provide cushioning in between the vertebrae begin to lose water content and weaken, which can lead to the development of bulging or herniated discs. If disc material comes in contact with the spinal cord or a nerve root, pain, numbness, tingling and weakness can affect the extremities. Additionally, a deteriorating disc often shrinks in height, causing adjacent vertebrae to slightly shift and possibly press on a nerve root or the spinal cord. Also, another function of the discs is to keep vertebrae and facet joints in correct alignment so they can move properly. A thinning or shrinking disc can disrupt the normal functioning of the facet joints. As a result of abnormal movement, the cartilage lining a facet joint can wear away and cause bones to grind together, an action that typically leads to inflammation, stiffness, bone spurs and pain, the hallmarks of spinal osteoarthritis.
Similar to spondylosis, spondylolisthesis can develop from age-related degeneration, but it can also develop as a result of physical trauma, a congenital birth defect or stress fractures caused by excessive hyperextension of the spine (commonly seen in gymnasts, weight lifters and football players). In a healthy spinal column, individual vertebrae are stacked atop one another and are separated by intervertebral discs. When spondylolisthesis affects an individual’s spinal column, the affected vertebra slips forward over the vertebra below it, causing spinal misalignment. The degree of slippage can vary, and patients with slight spondylolisthesis may never even realize they have the condition. Sometimes, though, even minor vertebral slippage can lead patients to experience nerve root or spinal cord compression symptoms of shooting leg pain, numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and even bladder and bowel dysfunction, the latter of which should be treated as a serious medical emergency. Other symptoms of spondylolisthesis include low back pain, muscle spasms, tight hamstring muscles, stiffness and abnormal curvature of the spine.
Although spondylosis and spondylolisthesis are different spine disorders, similar conservative (non-surgical) treatments are often first recommended to patients with either condition. The most common treatments include pain medication, physical therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and low-impact exercise.
If spondylosis or spondylolisthesis symptoms persist despite conservative treatments and a physician suggests surgical intervention, patients should contact Laser Spine Institute to learn more about our effective procedures.