What is Spondylolysis?

What is Spondylolysis?

Spondylolysis is a fracture (break) in the bone connecting the winged parts of a vertebra (spine bone), called the "pars interarticularis." These wing-shaped parts are called facets, and together they make up facet joints. The facet joints of vertebrae fit together—overlapping one on top of the other, much like roof shingles. Spondylolysis is also called "pars defect" because the pars interarticularis is the part that is fractured. It most often occurs in the lower back (lumbar spondylolysis) but can also affect the neck's bones (cervical spondylolysis). Spondylolysis is estimated to affect up to 7 percent of people in the United States.

Spondylosis vs. spondylolysis vs. spondylolisthesis

Spondylolysis is easily confused with spondylolisthesis and spondylosis. Here's how to know the difference:

  • Spondylolysis is a fracture of the pars interarticularis of a vertebra.
  • Spondylolisthesis is a slipping forward of one vertebra over another. It may occur as a complication of spondylolysis if a damaged pars interarticularis comes apart and permits the vertebra to slide out of position. It can also occur due to degenerative conditions of the spine.
  • Spondylosis refers to any age-related degenerative spine condition, such as osteoarthritis, herniated discs, and bone spurs.

spondylolysis vs. spondylolisthesis


What Causes Spondylolysis?


Repeated stress on a vertebra can cause pars defect due to:

  • Degeneration of the bone in older age.
  • Damage from certain sports activities, causing a stress fracture.
  • Being born with an abnormality of this part of the bone.

Occasionally spondylolysis can occur due to a high energy trauma to the spine

What Are the Symptoms of Spondylolysis?


It's not unusual for pars defect to cause no symptoms. It may be found during an X-ray for something else. When spondylolysis does cause symptoms, they may interfere with your ability to walk, work, or exercise comfortably.

  • Cervical spondylolysis symptoms: pain and stiffness in the neck.
  • Lumbar spondylolysis symptoms: lower back and/or hip pain, stiffness, muscle spasms, and sometimes radiculopathy (pain radiating into the buttocks and legs if a nerve is being compressed), causing sciatica.

Who Is at Risk of Developing Spondylolysis?


You may have an increased risk of spondylolysis if you:

  • Are genetically predisposed to it.
  • Were born with a defect in the pars interarticularis.
  • Participate in certain sports—particularly football, baseball, or gymnastics—which cause hyperextension, over-rotation, or trauma to the spine.
  • Are older (over age 40) and experiencing degeneration of the spine, such as arthritis.

What Happens if Spondylolysis Is Left Untreated?

If Left Untreated

Untreated spondylolysis causes no problems and does not require treatment in many people. Your doctor may recommend you avoid exercises or sports that may place additional stress on the affected vertebra. If spondylolysis continues to get worse, it could lead to spondylolisthesis. Be sure to see your doctor if your symptoms get worse.  

You should seek medical attention right away if you experience:

  • Numbness, weakness, or tingling, including discomfort that travels down into your buttocks, hips, and legs.
  • Difficulty walking or balancing.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

Learn about treatment for spondylolysis.

Get Care

Find Treatment for Spondylolysis at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian

If you are experiencing symptoms of spondylolysis that keep you from participating in the activities you wish to pursue or persist even during the simplest activities, such as standing and walking, you may benefit from seeing a spine expert. 

The specialists at Och Spine treat a wide range of conditions affecting the neck and back and will spend time with you to determine what is causing your symptoms.

Every doctor at Och Spine has experience in various back and neck conditions and injuries. When you call us to make an appointment, we will work with you to identify the best physician for your specific need.

Call today to see one of our physicians.