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Bertolotti Syndrome Explained : Understanding and Managing Lumbosacral Anomalies

  1. Introduction

    1. What is Bertolotti Syndrome?

      Bertolotti syndrome is a condition that affects the lowest part of a person’s spine causing pain and reduced mobility in the lower back. The condition is present by birth. In this condition, there is abnormal articulation or fusion between the fifth lumbar vertebra and the sacrum or the ilium (pelvic bone). Due to Bertolotti syndrome, the sacrum can no longer distribute the weight of the upper body evenly across the pelvis. This causes restriction of movement and pain in the lower back. It can also cause an increased range of motion in the L5 vertebra increasing the risk of slip disk and wear and tear of the cartilage between the vertebrae.

      A study suggested that Bertolotti syndrome affects 4-8% of people.(1) However, it is believed to be an underdiagnosed condition and the true prevalence may be greater.

    2. Significance of Understanding Bertolotti Syndrome

      Having an understanding of Bertolotti syndrome is significant for several reasons: 

      • It helps healthcare professionals in accurately diagnosing the condition through imaging studies and clinical assessment and also devising effective treatment plans.
      • Recognizing the unique features of Bertolotti syndrome can help healthcare providers distinguish it from other conditions ensuring proper and targeted management.
      • This contributes to ongoing research in spinal disorders leading to potential advancements in diagnostic techniques, treatment modalities, and overall patient care.
      • Timely and accurate diagnosis coupled with appropriate management can improve the quality of life of an individual with Bertolotti syndrome.
      • Understating the syndrome can help optimize the utilization of healthcare resources by avoiding unnecessary tests or treatments.
      • The healthcare professionals can benefit from a comprehensive understanding of Bertolotti syndrome for educational purposes, ensuring the best care to the patients.
  2. Anomalies Associated with Bertolotti Syndrome

    Bertolotti syndrome is characterized by anomalies of the lumbosacral region mostly involving the articulation of the fifth lumbar vertebra with the sacrum of the ilium. The anomalies associated with Bertolotti syndrome include: 

    • Transitional Vertebra: This is the primary anomaly associated with the presence of Bertolotti syndrome. It manifests as a larger transverse process on one or both sides of L5, resembling the sacral or iliac processes rather than the typical lumbar transverse processes.
    • Lumbosacral Transitional Vertebrae (LSTV): It refers to a spectrum of variation in the lumbosacral region, ranging from enlarged transverse process on one side to fusion with the sacrum or ilium on one or both sides. It often is used interchangeably with Bertolotti syndrome.
    • Iliolumbar Ligament Abnormalities: Iliolumbar ligaments normally attach from the transverse process of L5 to the iliac crest. Anomalies in the iliolumbar ligament can contribute to altered biomechanics in the lumbosacral region.
    • Altered Vertebral Articulation: Abnormal articulation or fusion between L5 and the sacrum or ilium can lead to changes in the normal movement and mechanics of the lumbar spine.(2)
    • Variable Presentation: There can be a wide range of variations and anomalies. The degree of enlargement or fusion can vary, and the clinical symptoms may differ among individuals.

    The above anomalies are associated with Bertolotti syndrome, the condition’s clinical significance and impact on symptoms, and may vary widely among affected individuals. Having an understanding of these anomalies is crucial for healthcare professionals in accurately diagnosing and managing Bertolotti syndrome.

  3. Clinical Presentation of Bertolotti Syndrome

    The clinical presentation may vary in individuals, while a few may remain asymptomatic. The symptoms presented may involve the lower back and may include: 

    • Lower back pain that may be localized to the lumbosacral region and may vary in intensity.
    • Radiating pain from the lumbosacral region into the buttocks or thighs. This radicular pain may mimic symptoms of lumbar disc herniation as the abnormal vertebral articulation affects the nearby nerve roots.
    • There may be compression of nerve roots due to anomalies in the lumbosacral region, which may lead to neurological symptoms. It may cause numbness, tingling, or weakness in the lower extremities.
    • The symptoms may worsen with certain activities such as prolonged standing, sitting, or activities that may involve repetitive bending and twisting of the spine.
    • There may be limitations in the range of motion of the lumbar spine, which may reduce flexibility and may contribute to discomfort during certain movements.
    • Inflammation of the affected region may contribute to symptoms and the individual may experience features such as morning stiffness.
    • The symptoms may alleviate with rest and may temporarily be relieved by changes in posture or position.

    Not all individuals with Bertolotti syndrome may experience the same symptoms and the symptoms may vary with severity. Some individuals may be asymptomatic as well.

  4. How is Bertolotti Syndrome Diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of Bertolotti syndrome involves a combination of clinical assessment and imaging studies. 

    • Clinical Assessment: The patient’s medical history is taken by the doctor which includes the onset, duration, and characteristics of the lower back pain. The aggravating and alleviating factors are also enquired about. Physical examination is performed to assess the range of motion of the lumbar spine. This helps in identifying the area of tenderness and evaluating the neurological signs such as sensory changes, reflexes, and muscle strength.
    • Imaging Studies: Initially X-ray of the lumbar spine is taken, which may reveal the presence of lumbosacral transitional vertebra. A CT scan helps in providing detailed imaging of the bony structure and is particularly useful for visualizing the extent of anomalies and their impact on the nearby structures. MRI scan can help assess soft tissue, nerve roots, and any associated disc herniation, or spinal stenosis. Together CT and MRI scans can help give a clearer picture of the spine and can help the doctor plan an appropriate treatment.
    • Specialized Imaging: In some individuals, specialized imaging studies may be needed such as dynamic x-rays or stress views. These help in viewing the dynamic nature of the anomalies. Assessing the response to conservative measures such as physical therapy, pain management, and anti-inflammatory medications may be needed. Once diagnosed the healthcare team may tailor a treatment plan based on the severity of symptoms.
  5. Treatment for Bertolotti Syndrome

    Treatment for Bertolotti syndrome involves a combination of conservative treatment and surgical intervention in some cases. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of the condition. The several treatment options include: 

    • Conservative Management: This involves physical therapy to improve posture, strengthen supporting muscles, and enhance flexibility. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and other pain medications can help manage pain and inflammation. The patient is also advised to modify certain activities or postures that may be exacerbating symptoms.
    • Interventional Procedures: In some cases, corticosteroid injections may be administered into the affected area to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. Local anesthesia and nerve block injections may be given for temporary relief of pain.
    • Surgical Interventions: In case of neurological compromise and symptoms severity, surgical decompression may be considered, which involves removing or trimming the abnormal bony structure or tissue causing compression.(3) In case of instability or persistent pain, after decompression, spinal fusion surgery may be performed.(4) This may involve stabilizing the affected vertebrae using bone graft and instrumentation.
    • Multidisciplinary Approach: This involves collaboration between an orthopedic surgeon, neurosurgeon, and pain specialist for managing complex cases.
    • Patient Education: Patients can be educated about their condition, including the nature of anomalies, expected outcomes of treatment, and self-management strategies. This can help individuals to actively participate in their care.

    The choice of treatment is individualized and not all patients with Bertolotti syndrome may require surgical intervention.

  6. When to See a Doctor?

    There a various condition that may cause lower back pain, one of which includes Bertolotti syndrome. It is therefore important to consult a doctor to get the cause diagnosed.

    If not treated Bertolotti syndrome can cause other parts of the spine to bear the upper body weight putting excess strain on the spine. This can lead to the wear and tear of the cartilage between the vertebrae.

    With early diagnosis and treatment, the risk of future complications can be prevented.

  7. Conclusion

    Bertolotti syndrome is a condition characterized by anomalies in the lumbosacral region, particularly involving the fifth lumbar vertebra with the sacrum or ilium. It clinically presents as chronic lower back pain, radicular pain, and in some cases neurological symptoms.

    Diagnosing Bertolotti syndrome involves a combination of clinical assessment and imaging studies such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRI. It can be treated with conservative measures, interventional procedures such as corticosteroid injections or nerve blocks, and surgical interventions in severe cases.

    Any person experiencing lower back pain should contact a doctor and get diagnosed with the underlying cause. This can help in tailoring the effective treatment. A multidisciplinary approach involving collaboration among healthcare professionals ensures a comprehensive and individualized treatment strategy.

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 8, 2023

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