Persistent back pain and numbness down your legs may be caused by spondylolisthesis, where one of the bones in your spine has slipped out of position.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis is when a bone (vertebra) in your spine slips out of position and causes pressure on the nerves in the spinal canal which connect your brain and your body. This can cause pain, numbness and weakness, usually in your lower back and legs.

How to tell if you have spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis is most common in your lower back and might cause these symptoms:

  • Lower back pain which may get worse during activity
  • Pain, numbness or pins and needles down your legs (these symptoms are known as sciatica)
  • Tight hamstrings
  • Stiff back
  • Curvature or bulging of the spine

If you have difficulty walking and feel unsteady on your feet, this may also be a sign.

It's possible to have spondylolisthesis without any of these symptoms.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for spondylolisthesis

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

They'll examine your back and also your limbs to see the amount of movement and pain you have.

You may need an X-ray, MRI scan or CT scan to see if there's a slipped vertebra in your spine which is compressing a nerve.

Causes of spondylolisthesis

There are different causes of spondylolisthesis:

  • Gradual wear and tear of the vertabrae and cartilage (osteoarthritis) - more common in older people
  • Repetitive trauma, such as heavy weight lifting or gymnastics
  • A sudden injury, such as a fracture from a car accident
  • An infection or tumour
  • A birth defect in a vertebra
  • Spinal stenosis

Common treatments for spondylolisthesis

If you're experiencing pain which is affecting your daily life, the recommended treatments are usually:

Your doctor will usually only recommend surgery after other treatments have been unsuccessful. This could be decompression surgery to remove part of your spine to relieve pressure, or fusion of two vertebrae together to keep the slipped vertebra in place.