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Understanding Degenerative Spondylolisthesis: A Guide to Back Pain Relief

Degenerative spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebrae slips forward over the one beneath it due to degeneration of the spinal discs and joints. This displacement often results in debilitating back pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. Unlike isthmic spondylolisthesis, which often affects younger individuals due to a defect in the pars interarticularis, degenerative spondylolisthesis is associated with ageing and wear-and-tear on the spinal structures. As we age, the intervertebral discs lose hydration and elasticity, the facet joints degenerate, and the ligaments supporting the spine weaken, leading to instability and potential vertebral slippage. 

Degenerative spondylolisthesis can be a challenging condition to manage, particularly when it leads to persistent back pain. For patients hesitant about surgery, physiotherapy emerges as a crucial ally in their journey towards pain relief and improved quality of life.

Understanding the Causes:

Several factors contribute to the development of degenerative spondylolisthesis, including:

  • Ageing: Degenerative changes in the spine over time increase the risk of vertebral slippage.

  • Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing degenerative spinal conditions.

  • Repetitive Stress: Activities or occupations that involve repetitive bending, lifting, or twisting can accelerate spinal degeneration.

  • Obesity: Excess weight places additional strain on the spine, hastening degenerative changes.

  • Injury: Trauma to the spine can predispose individuals to degenerative spondylolisthesis later in life.

Recognising the Symptoms:

Degenerative spondylolisthesis can manifest with various symptoms, including:

  1. Lower back pain: Persistent, dull aching discomfort in the lower back is a common complaint.

  2. Radiating pain: Pain may radiate into the buttocks, thighs, or legs, often described as numbness, tingling, or weakness.

  3. Difficulty walking: Some individuals may experience difficulty walking or standing for prolonged periods due to pain or weakness in the legs.

  4. Reduced range of motion: Stiffness and limited mobility in the lower back may be evident.

  5. Neurological symptoms: In severe cases, compression of spinal nerves can lead to bladder or bowel dysfunction, or even paralysis (rare).

Treatment Options:

While degenerative spondylolisthesis can cause significant discomfort and impairment, several treatment options are available to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. These may include:

  1. Pain Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxants, or analgesics may provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation.

  2. Physiotherapy: A tailored exercise program designed by a physiotherapist can strengthen the muscles supporting the spine and improve mobility, thereby reducing pain and enhancing function.

  3. Manual Therapy: Hands-on techniques such as massage, mobilisation, or manipulation may alleviate muscle tension, improve joint mobility, and reduce pain.

  4. Epidural Steroid Injections: Injections of corticosteroids into the epidural space around the spinal nerves can provide short-term relief from inflammation and pain.

  5. Surgery: In severe cases resistant to conservative treatments, surgical intervention such as spinal fusion or decompression may be necessary to stabilize the spine and relieve pressure on the affected nerves.

The Role of Physiotherapy:

Physiotherapy plays a central role in the management of degenerative spondylolisthesis by addressing underlying musculoskeletal imbalances, promoting spinal stability, and improving functional capacity. Here's how physiotherapy can help:

  1. Individualised Exercise Prescription: A physiotherapist will devise a customised exercise program tailored to your specific needs and limitations. These exercises may include stretching, strengthening, and stabilisation exercises aimed at enhancing core strength, improving posture, and alleviating pain.

  2. Manual Therapy Techniques: Hands-on techniques such as joint mobilisation, soft tissue massage, and spinal manipulation can help reduce pain, improve spinal alignment, and restore normal movement patterns.

  3. Education and Ergonomic Advice: Your physiotherapist will provide valuable education on proper body mechanics, ergonomics, and lifestyle modifications to minimise strain on the spine and prevent exacerbation of symptoms.

  4. Functional Rehabilitation: Functional exercises focusing on activities of daily living (e.g., bending, lifting, squatting) can enhance your ability to perform daily tasks with greater ease and reduced discomfort.

  5. Long-term Management: Physiotherapy offers long-term management strategies to empower you to take control of your condition and maintain optimal spinal health, thereby reducing the risk of future flare-ups or complications.

Degenerative spondylolisthesis can be a challenging condition to manage, but with the right approach, significant relief from back pain and improved function is achievable. Physiotherapy offers a comprehensive, non-invasive approach to addressing the underlying factors contributing to your symptoms and promoting long-term spinal health. If you're struggling with degenerative spondylolisthesis, don't hesitate to reach out to our team at Sydney Muscle & Joint Clinic for expert guidance and personalised care. Together, we can embark on a journey towards a pain-free, active lifestyle.


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