Spondylolysis is a stress fracture of vertebra that may progress into spondylolisthesis, a condition of displacement of vertebrae from the spinal column. Spondylolysis is the cause for frequent low back pain in children. It is more common among children and teenagers who participate actively in sports such as football, weightlifting and gymnastics.
What are the causes of stress fractures?
Spondylolysis occurs as a result of a defect or stress fracture in the pars interarticularis, the part of the lumbar spine joining the upper and lower joints. Genetic factors may have a role. Children born with thin vertebra are prone to vertebral stress fractures. Also, repetitive trauma to the lower back area that occurs during sports and other activities can cause weakness of the pars interarticularis, resulting in spondylolysis.
What are the symptoms of spondylolysis?
Although initially the patient may not have any symptoms, lower back pain is apparent during the teenage growth spurt period. The pain worsens with vigorous physical activities and exercises. At times, the pain may feel similar to a muscle strain.
What are the risk factors associated with spondylolysis?
Risk factors for developing spondylolysis include:
- Family history of back problems
- Repetitive trauma to the lower back
- Increased lordosis (swayback)
- Incomplete development of spinal cord (spina bifida occult)
- Participation in sports such as football, gymnastics and weight lifting that require constant overstretching of the spine
Untreated spondylolysis may lead to further complications including:
- Spondylolisthesis, a condition where one or more vertebrae slips out of place
- Limited mobility and inactivity
- Weight gain because of inactivity
- Loss of bone density
- Loss of muscle strength
- Loss of flexibility
- Permanent nerve damage
- Chronic back pain
- Numbness, tingling or weakness in the legs
- Nerve compression causing problems with bowel or bladder control
How is spondylolysis diagnosed?
Your surgeon diagnoses spondylolysis by asking several questions and performing several tests that include:
- Family History
- Medical History
- Physical Examination
- CT scan or MRI scan
What are the treatment options?
Based on the diagnoses made, your surgeon recommends either conservative treatments or surgical treatment.
Primary treatment for spondylolysis is always conservative. The goal of the conservative treatment is to reduce the pain, allow the fracture to heal and improve the function.
Conservative treatment options include:
- Rest: Adequate rest should be taken and strenuous exercises should be avoided until the symptoms subside
- Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) may be prescribed to reduce the pain and inflammation. If NSAID’s do not provide relief, epidural steroid injections may be administered to the spine to reduce pain, numbness and tingling in the legs
- Physical therapy: An exercise program helps to strengthen the abdominal and back muscles, improve flexibility and increase range of motion of the lower back
- Use of braces: In severe cases of spondylolysis, a brace or back support may be used to stabilize the lower back during fracture healing
Surgery is usually required if spondylolysis has progressed into spondylolisthesis. The goal of the surgery is to remove any abnormal bone compressing a nerve and to stabilize the spine.
Decompressive Laminectomy & Spinal Fusion: In this procedure, a portion of the bone or lamina imparting pressure on the nerves is removed. A surgical incision is made in the back, then part of the bone and thickened tissue pressing on the spinal nerves is removed. This allows more space for the nerves, thus relieving pain and pressure. This procedure makes the spine unstable and therefore spinal fusion will be performed to stabilize the spine.
Spinal fusion is the procedure of joining two adjacent vertebrae. During the procedure, a piece of bone, taken from elsewhere in the body or donated from a bone bank, is transplanted between the adjacent vertebrae. As healing occurs, the transplanted bone fuses with the spine. This stimulates growth of a solid mass of bone which helps to stabilize the spine. In some cases, metal implants such as rods, hooks, wires, plates or screws are used to hold the vertebra firm until the new bone grows between them.
Although spondylolysis is not completely preventable, certain factors can reduce the risk of developing the condition:
- Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce stress on the lower back
- Core exercises to keep the abdominal and back muscles strong will help to support the lower back.