What Is a Retrolisthesis?

Individuals suffering from retrolisthesis may experience chronic back pain.
Retrolisthesis involves a backwards displacement of a vertebra in the spine.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2014
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A retrolisthesis is an acute, degenerative, or congenital condition in which a vertebra in the spine becomes displaced and moves backward. In most cases, retrolisthesis occurs when a soft disc that separates and cushions vertebrae either deteriorates or ruptures. Without the support of the disc, the upper vertebra slips out of place and puts pressure on the bone below it. A person who experiences the condition may have a number of symptoms, including chronic back pain, stiffness, and numbness. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms but usually includes a combination of pain medicines, physical therapy, and surgery.

Most instances of vertebral slippage involve a forward movement of an upper vertebra, in which it slips inward toward the chest. The backward displacement involved with retrolisthesis is less common, but still occurs in considerable frequency among people with degenerative disorders. Arthritis is a leading cause of retrolisthesis in older people, which leads to deterioration of disc tissue. Severe back injuries and congenital spine defects can also result in vertebral slippage.

Retrolisthesis is most likely to affect a bone in the uppermost section of the spine, called the cervical region. Cervical vertebrae in the neck are smaller and generally more susceptible to injury. Slippages are possible, but less common, in the middle and lower sections of the spine. The location of the displacement largely determines the types of symptoms a person might experience.

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Cervical retrolisthesis can lead to chronic dull neck pain and tenderness. Slippages lower in the back can significantly limit mobility, causing stiffness and constant pain when walking, standing, or sitting. It is possible for a damaged vertebra to put pressure on important nerves in the back, leading to numbness or tingling sensations in the arms, legs, or torso. Symptoms tend to worsen over time without treatment, especially when degenerative disorders are responsible.

An individual who has significant back pain should visit his or her doctor for a thorough evaluation. A physician can physically examine the spine and take x-rays to check for retrolisthesis. If a slippage is found, the doctor may refer the patient to a specialist for a more thorough assessment. Additional diagnostic tests at the spine specialist's office help to determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

A slight displacement does not often require surgery. Instead, a patient is usually given medications to manage pain and swelling and instructed to get plenty of rest for several weeks. If arthritis is involved, he or she may need to take additional drugs and supplements to improve bone health. A case of severe retrolisthesis can usually be remedied through an invasive surgical procedure, during which a specialist manually adjusts the alignment of vertebrae and permanently fuses them together. Followup physical therapy, which can take years, is important to help a patient regain strength.

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anon345628
Post 7

I had a neck x-ray and the result was 3mm retrolisthesis of C4 and C5 that reduces somewhat on flexion but is maintained on extension. What does it really mean?

anon282450
Post 6

@anon195453: Sitting can and will aggravate it as will your posture. A lot of articles online encourage physio therapy and chiropractic sessions to alleviate any subluxation, etc. I recommend seeing either before doing any stretches. I learned this the hard way! They can tell you what stretches are bad and good and I tell you it is worth knowing.

I'm a 24 year old female, and was reasonably fit and active until muscle spasms turned into a hernia sciatica and retrolithesis L5.

The first doctor was well aware I was having to travel internationally and ignored me when I asked if there was any stretches etc I could do and just prescribed a strong nsaid.

Once I got to Tokyo everything was fine until I lost the ability to walk and go to the bathroom. I didn't tell the specialist or doctors in Japan for fear of being operated on in a foreign country.

It took me nine weeks before I was able to fly back home. All of the medical professionals I have seen seem to contradict each other so have given up!

Chiropractic manipulations seem to help with the retrolithesis and sciatica, very basic stretching and as much walking I can do helps. Also, a lumbar roll and seat cushion which tilts and is cut out at the back for the spine helps when I drive or have to sit anywhere.

I count myself lucky I can go to the bathroom again but it's a daily burden which cuts your standard of life in half. I don't think anyone can understand the amount of frustration, pain and isolation a serious back issue causes unless they've experienced it for themselves! Good luck to all of you!

anon225192
Post 5

I know how you all feel with the pain. I have too many problems to list that pain meds no longer provide much relief for, however, I wanted to suggest lidoderm patches. They will numb the area your pain is in. I use them on for about 16 hours on even though it says to only use them for 12 on 12 off and have used up to three at once. I try to only use them when the pain is more severe than normal because they are so expensive. Usually they have samples in the doctor's office.

They cost about $8.50 a patch at walmart and you can get a coupon from the manufacturer. Wishing you all to wellness. I know how it feels and wish to go home too. The pain is horrible and indescribable.

anon195453
Post 4

I have a question. I have a 3.5 mm rethrolisthesis at l3 as compared to L4. The spine specialist cannot get me in for two weeks. I have some sciatica, but with enough ibuprofin I'm okay.

However, I'm terrified that I'm going to make the slippage worse. It hurts to sit. I'm fine standing, walking or lying down, so that's all I've been doing for a few weeks. How likely is it that sitting in a chair (or car!) would make the slippage worse. Does anyone know?

anon173483
Post 3

Wow - you two - so sorry you have so much pain. I thought mine was bad but at least I can still work full time. I guess I'm relatively lucky despite 2mm retrolisthesis of C5-6 with mild foraminal narrowing and severe degenerative disc disease with osteophytes along with thoracic degenerative disc disease, a mid thoracic syrinx with central syringomyelia, osteoarthritis (arthritis)and Schmorl's nodes throughout the thoracic spine down to L1. I also have arthritis in the lumbar spine and fibromyalgia.

I am taking 100 mg Nortriptyline and slow release Ralivia (Tramadol) at night to help with sleep and pain but the pain is increasing lately and I am going to see my doctor next week to discuss what I can do next. I can identify with your wish to "go home". I often say that to my husband because life is so painful and tiring. I get so exhausted at times that I can hardly breath.

I guess we have to get what little pleasure we can from life and keep smiling through our pain. No one likes a constant complainer after all, hard though it is not to complain. Good wishes to you both.

anon145364
Post 2

I also have fibro, frozen shoulder and all over body pain and a grade 1 of the c3 and c4 which I'm in constant pain from head to toe. no one helps, no meds help.

I know what you mean 127931 -- it is no life. I always pray that God takes me home. I cannot tolerate all the different pain. I also use ice and heat, meds. We were just born to suffer!

anon127931
Post 1

i have this along with herniated disks in my neck. also three fractures in the mid thoracic, plus three herniated disks in mid back and one on the nerve root and four bulging into the lumbar with spondylotic changes and stenosis.

It is constant, severe crippling pain, which is everywhere in my whole body. Plus fibro and severe joint, bone muscle, and nerve pain. it feels like i was hit by a truck and run over a thousand times.

I am bedridden most of time with heat packs or ice packs. I can hardly walk, lift up my arms and sit or stand for about 15 min. Medicine only helps at certain times, but the pain always wins. i can be lying still and pain shoots all over my body. it is a terrible way to live. No life at all.

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