Clinical Study| Volume 7, ISSUE 4, P406-413, July 2007

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Retrolisthesis and lumbar disc herniation: a preoperative assessment of patient function

Published:January 02, 2007DOI:


      Background context

      Retrolisthesis is relatively rare but when present has been associated with increased back pain and impaired back function. Neither the prevalence of this condition in individuals with lumbar disc herniations nor its possible relation to preoperative back pain and dysfunction has been well studied.


      The purposes of this study were as follows: (1) to determine the prevalence of retrolisthesis (alone or in combination with other degenerative conditions) in individuals with confirmed L5–S1 disc herniation who later underwent lumbar discectomy; (2) to determine if there is any association between retrolisthesis and degenerative changes within the same vertebral motion segment; and (3) to determine the relation between retrolisthesis (alone or in combination with other degenerative conditions) and preoperative low back pain, physical function, and quality of life.

      Study design/setting

      Cross-sectional study.

      Patient sample

      A total of 125 individuals were identified for incorporation into this study. All patients had confirmed L5–S1 disc herniation on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and later underwent L5–S1 discectomy. All patients were enrolled in the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT) study; data were obtained from the multi-institutional database comprised of SPORT patients from across the United States.

      Outcome measures

      Retrolisthesis, degenerative change on MRI, and Modic changes.


      MRI scans of the lumbar spine were assessed at spinal level L5–S1 for all 125 patients. Retrolisthesis was defined as posterior subluxation of 8% or more. Disc degeneration was defined as any loss of disc signal on T2 imaging. Modic changes were graded 1 to 3 and collectively classified as vertebral endplate degenerative changes. The presence of facet arthropathy and ligamentum flavum hypertrophy was classified jointly as posterior degenerative changes.


      The overall incidence of retrolisthesis at L5–S1 in our study was 23.2%. Retrolisthesis combined with posterior degenerative changes, degenerative disc disease, or vertebral endplate changes had incidences of 4.8%, 16%, and 4.8% respectively. The prevalence of retrolisthesis did not vary by sex, age, race, smoking status, or education level when compared with individuals with normal sagittal alignment. However, individuals with retrolisthesis were more likely to be receiving workers' compensation than those without retrolisthesis. Increased age was found to be associated with individuals having vertebral endplate degenerative changes (both alone and in conjunction with retrolisthesis) and degenerative disc disease. Individuals who had retrolisthesis with concomitant vertebral endplate degenerative changes were more often smokers and had no insurance. The presence of retrolisthesis was not associated with an increased incidence of having degenerative disc disease, posterior degenerative changes, or vertebral endplate changes. No statistical significance was found between the presence of retrolisthesis on the degree of patient preoperative low back pain and physical function. Patients with degenerative disc disease were found to have increased leg pain compared with those patients without degenerative disc changes.


      We found no significant relationship between retrolisthesis in patients with L5–S1 disc herniation and worse baseline pain or function. It is possible that the contribution of pain or dysfunction related to retrolisthesis was far overshadowed by the presence of symptoms caused by the concomitant disc herniation. It remains to be seen whether retrolisthesis will affect outcome after discectomy in these patients.


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