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What is spondylolysis?

Spondylolysis is a defect or fracture on one or both of the wing-shaped parts of a vertebra, usually in the lower lumbar region.

Spondylolysis is usually detected sometime during childhood. It may occur for one or more reasons.

  • Some people are born missing part of, or with damage to, this piece of vertebra.
  • The wing-shaped parts of the vertebra may become damaged from strenuous physical activity, especially during the teen years. Certain types of athletes—particularly weight lifters, football players, gymnasts, and javelin throwers—are at increased risk for developing this condition. It usually starts as a stress fracture and it never completely heals.
  • Normal changes associated with aging can weaken this part of the vertebra, leading to fractures or deformities.

Most people can manage spondylolysis by resting from strenuous activity, doing stretching and strengthening exercises, and taking pain relief medicine, such as ibuprofen. Surgery is rarely needed, although it may be considered for people who do not respond to other treatment.

Symptoms

There are often no symptoms. When there are symptoms, back pain and stiffness are the main ones. They are usually worse in the morning and get better throughout the day.

If bony growths are pushing against a nerve root or the spinal cord, you may have numbness, tingling, weakness, or an aching, shooting pain in your buttock and leg.

Causes

As your body ages, the discs between the bones of the spine become stiffer and can break down. The bones also wear down and can grow bone spurs.

How is it diagnosed?

Lumbar spondylosis can usually be diagnosed based on your history of symptoms, a physical exam, and imaging tests. These are tests that produce various kinds of pictures of your body. Such tests include:

  • X-rays. They can help measure the extent of arthritis or injuries to the bones.
  • MRI. This test checks your spinal nerves and looks for disc problems.
  • CT scan. This test checks your spinal canal, bones, and joints.

Treatment options

Pain and stiffness are first treated with ice or heat and with over-the-counter medicines. Physical therapy and daily exercises can be helpful.

If these treatments aren't helping you enough, you may need other treatments. This might be more likely to happen if you have spine problems such as a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. In some cases, a shot of medicine in the joint area may offer short-term relief. For a severe problem, surgery may be an option.

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