Clinical Study| Volume 21, ISSUE 8, P1256-1267, August 2021

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Management of degenerative spondylolisthesis: development of appropriate use criteria



      Outcomes of treatment in care of patients with spinal disorders are directly related to patient selection and treatment indications. However, for many disorders, there is absence of consensus for precise indications. With the increasing emphasis on quality and value in spine care, it is essential that treatment recommendations and decisions are optimized.


      The purpose of the North American Spine Society Appropriate Use Criteria was to determine the appropriate (ie reasonable) multidisciplinary treatment recommendations for patients with degenerative spondylolisthesis across a spectrum of more common clinical scenarios.


      A Modified Delphi process was used.


      The methodology was based on the Appropriate Use Criteria development process established by the Research AND Development Corporation. The topic of degenerative spondylolisthesis was selected by the committee, key modifiers determined, and consensus reached on standard definitions. A literature search and evidence analysis were completed by one work group simultaneously as scenarios were written, reviewed, and finalized by another work group. A separate multidisciplinary rating group was assembled. Based on the literature, provider experience, and group discussion, each scenario was scored on a nine-point scale on two separate occasions, once without discussion and then a second time following discussion based on the initial responses. The median rating for each scenario was then used to determine if indications were rarely appropriate (1 – 3), uncertain (4-6), or appropriate (7-9). Consensus was not mandatory.


      There were 131 discrete scenarios. These addressed questions on bone grafting, imaging, mechanical instability, radiculopathy with or without neurological deficits, obesity, and yellow flags consisting of psychosocial and medical comorbidities. For most of these, appropriateness was established for physical therapy, injections, and various forms of surgical intervention. The diagnosis of spondylolisthesis should be determined by an upright x-ray. Scenarios pertaining to bone grafting suggested that patients should quit smoking prior to surgery, and that use of BMP should be reserved for patients who had risk factors for non-union. Across all clinical scenarios, physical therapy (PT) had an adjusted mean of 7.66, epidural steroid injections 5.76, and surgery 4.52. Physical therapy was appropriate in most scenarios, and most appropriate in patients with back pain and no neurological deficits. Epidural steroid injections were most appropriate in patients with radiculopathy. Surgery was generally more appropriate for patients with neurological deficits, higher disability scores, and dynamic spondylolisthesis. Mechanical back pain and presence of yellow flags tended to be less appropriate, and obesity in general had relatively little influence on decision making. Decompression alone was more strongly considered in the presence of static versus dynamic spondylolisthesis. On average, posterior fusion with or without interbody fusion was similarly appropriate, and generally more appropriate than stand-alone interbody fusion which was in turn more appropriate than interspinous spacers.


      Multidisciplinary appropriate treatment criteria were generated based on the Research AND Development methodology. While there were consistent and significant differences between surgeons and non-surgeons, these differences were generally very small. This document provides comprehensive evidence-based recommendations for evaluation and treatment of degenerative spondylolisthesis. The document in its entirety will be found on the North American Spine Society website (

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