Spondylolysis occurs when there is a break in the bony posterior portion of the spinal column. The spinal cord is protected by a ring of bone that makes up the middle and posterior portion of the spinal column. The area of injury in the spinal column is between the pedicle and lamina. (see figure 1) The vertebra initially responds to increased strain by gradually adding new bone cells around the injured area; however, an injury can occur too quickly for the vertebrae to be repaired, and this leads to a stress fracture. This type of fracture usually occurs in the pars and can lead to a persistent pars defect after the fracture has been completed.
The lower portion of the spinal column is called the lumbar spine. Spondylolysis most commonly occurs in the lower back at lumbar vertebra number five (L5). In athletes, this type of injury can be seen when the back is bent backwards repeatedly, in activities such as gymnastics, karate, and football. Specifically, this is common in offensive and defensive linemen.
The crack may affect only one side, but it is not uncommon to have fractures on both sides of the vetebra. When fractures occur on both sides, it is possible for one vetebra to translate or move forward or backward over the neighboring vetebra; this is called spondylolisthesis.
Those with a pars fracture may feel pain and stiffness in the lower back that is worsened with activity and improves with rest. Hyper-extension (abnormal stretching) of the lower back will usually aggravate the area as it overloads the pars fracture
Occasionally, nerve symptoms can be present that may include a pain, “pins and needles” sensation in a leg, with or without numbness or weakness in the leg.
Evaluation for this condition would include a review of the patient’s medical history and a physical exam, followed by xrays which can detect pars defects.
A bone scan can be used for early detection of a stress fracture of the pars. This involves injecting chemical "tracers" into your blood stream. The tracers then show up on special spine x-rays. The tracers collect in areas of increased metabolism or cell activity in bone tissue, such as would be seen in areas of a stress fracture of the pars interarticularis.
A CT scan be used to evaluate a pars defect and to visualize healing bone, while an MRI may be useful to assess the surrounding tissue and condition of the disk.
The treatment for a pars fracture is initially non-operative and includes rest and bracing. The fracture can be assessed with a series of x-rays every few months. Bracing can last for 3-4 months while the fracture heals, and physiotherapy can also be included to maintain and help strengthen the abdominal and back muscles with specific directed exercises.
If the athlete has persistent pain after non-operative treatment, surgery may be required.
- In young patients without the development of a significant spondylolisthesis or osteoarthritis the pars defects may be surgical fixed. This is performed minimally invasive with percutaneous screws and bone grafting through separate small incisions. The hospital stay is usually 2-3 days and a brace is worn for a period after surgery. Once the fractures are confirmed, a return to activities is allowed. This can take 6-9 months and may require a CT scan.
- If there is degeneration or significant spondylolisthesis or the repair procedure fails to heal the bone, then a fusion is performed. A minimally invasive TLIF (fusion) Please see separate procedure