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What is Retrolisthesis, Know its Types, Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Prognosis

What is Retrolisthesis?

Retrolisthesis is a joint dysfunction, which is fairly uncommon and occurs when a single vertebra shifts backwards along or beneath a disc.1 Forward slipping of the vertebra is known as spondylolisthesis. Retrolisthesis can occur in the cervical spine (neck and shoulder) and lumbar spine (lower back). Retrolisthesis is seen very less frequently in the thoracic spine (mid-back). The backward displacement of the vertebra in retrolisthesis is of 2 millimeters or more.

What is Retrolisthesis?

What are the Types of Retrolisthesis?

The 3 types of Retrolisthesis are characterized according to the vertebral displacement in association with the adjacent vertebra.1

  1. Complete Retrolisthesis is a type of retrolisthesis where one vertebra slips backwards in conjunction to the vertebra above and below it.
  2. Partial Retrolisthesis is a type of retrolisthesis where one vertebra shifts backwards towards the vertebra above or below it.
  3. Staircase Retrolisthesis is a type of retrolisthesis where the vertebra shifts backwards from the vertebra above it and ahead of the vertebra under it.

What are the Causes of Retrolisthesis?

The cause of Retrolisthesis is decrease in the space between the vertebrae. This can occur due to shrinking of the discs between the vertebrae. The exact cause of reduction in the space and shrinking of the discs is not clear.

However, some of the potential causes of Retrolisthesis, which are responsible for shrinkage of the discs include: arthritis, osteoporosis, degenerative spine problems, spinal injuries, congenital problems, weak spinal muscles, weak abdominal muscles, bone infections, blood infections and nutritional deficiencies.1

What are the Symptoms of Retrolisthesis?

Symptoms of retrolisthesis differ from patient to patient and can be mild to severe and include: Back pain, decreased range of motion 1, discomfort in one particular region of back, pain in the area of retrolisthesis and a bulge in the spine.

Symptoms of retrolisthesis can extend beyond the back area and patient can also experience tingling or numbness in neck, shoulders, thighs, buttocks, hips, arms and legs.

How is Retrolisthesis Diagnosed?

A lateral x-ray helps in confirming the diagnosis of retrolisthesis. Other than this, patient’s medical history is taken and physical exam is done. The x-ray is carried out which the doctor examines and compares the positions of the vertebrae and measures the distance the vertebrae has displaced out of its position. Backward vertebral slippage of 2 millimeters or more is an indication of retrolisthesis.

Additional signs of retrolisthesis, which can be seen on x-ray, are: reduced disc heights, hardened arteries surrounding the vertebrae, presence of gas between vertebrae and bone spurs.

How is Retrolisthesis Treated?

Treatment of retrolisthesis depends on the severity of the condition and other associated issues around the area of vertebral slippage.

  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy helps in increasing the strength in the muscles of the back and abdomen and thus helps with retrolisthesis.
  • Massage Therapy: Massage can be done to improve blood circulation and muscle tone in the area of retrolisthesis.
  • Exercises: Patient can also undergo targeted spin strengthening exercises for alleviating Retrolisthesis.
  • Heat Application: Heat application to the area of retrolisthesis helps in reducing its symptoms.
  • Microcurrent Therapy: Microcurrent therapy, which consists of low-level electric currents to the area of retrolisthesis helps in reducing pain, swelling, pain and inflammation.
  • Medications: Pain relieving medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen can be prescribed to relieve the pain from retrolisthesis.
  • Surgery: Surgery is not usually considered for treating retrolisthesis and is only done when other non-surgical treatments to treat retrolisthesis are not working.

What is the Prognosis of Retrolisthesis?

The prognosis of retrolisthesis is good if it is diagnosed early and treatment is started soon with the backward vertebral slippage being stabilized. However, if the treatment of retrolisthesis is delayed or not done then the condition worsens and leads to many complications.

Untreated retrolisthesis or worsening of retrolisthesis increases the nerve compression and causes the following symptoms in the patient: neck pain, reduced mobility, difficulties with balance and coordination and numbness and weakness in the arms and hands. So it is important to treat retrolisthesis as soon as it is diagnosed.


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 28, 2023

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