Spondylitis, Spondylosis, Spondylolisthesis: What Is the Difference?

Last updated: January 2023

The names of 3 health conditions that affect your spine sound very similar. However, spondylitis, spondylosis, and spondylolisthesis have some key differences. Here is a guide to each one.

Spondylosis develops with age

As people grow older, their bones can change. The bones in the spine are no exception. Some changes that occur are part of the normal wear and tear of the lower back. Bones get weaker, and little growths called bone spurs can develop. The discs in your back can lose moisture and shrink. When you develop symptoms as the bones in your back change, your doctor may tell you that you have lumbar spondylosis.1

If this age-related wear and tear happens to the spinal discs in your neck, it is called cervical spondylosis. Sometimes you can develop bone spurs in this area. Cervical spondylosis gets worse with age, but most people who have it do not have any symptoms. It is also very common. More than 85 percent of people who are over age 60 have cervical spondylosis.2

If you have spondylosis, you may not have any symptoms, or you may have a lot of symptoms. If you have pain, your doctor may tell you to treat it with ice, heat, or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Physical therapy and exercise may also be recommended.1

To add to the confusion, a condition called spondylolysis also causes back pain. However, this condition is more common in young people. Children and teenagers are more likely to get it, especially if they participate in activities like football in gymnastics.

With spondylolysis, a small crack, or a fracture, develops between 2 vertebrae. The vertebrae are the bones in the spine. Spondylolysis is very treatable and usually responds to drugs and physical therapy. Treatment is most successful when it is started early. If you or your child is having back pain, talk to your doctor.3

Spondylitis can affect other parts of your body

Spondylitis is also called spondyloarthritis, and there are different kinds. One is ankylosing spondylitis (AS). This type of arthritis affects the spine. It can cause pain, stiffness, and inflammation not just in the spine but also in the shoulders, hips, ribs, heels, and other joints. Sometimes, spondylitis leads to ankylosis. In this condition, some of the bones in the spine can grow together. This can cause the spine to be rigid and hard to bend.4,5

In many people, mild episodes of back pain and stiffness can come and go. However, other people with this condition can have severe back pain and stiffness.5

Spondylitis and spondylosis are similar. They can both cause chronic back and hip pain. However, the immune system attacks the joints in spondylitis. Spondylitis typically develops before the age of 45. Spondylosis becomes increasingly common the older you get. It is not an inflammatory condition like spondylitis.6

Spondylolisthesis causes back pain and stiffness

In this condition, a vertebra in your back slips out of place. This causes pressure on the bone below it and pain in the lower back. It could happen if you already have spondylolysis. If this is the case, it is called isthmic spondylolisthesis. It also could happen as you get older and the discs in your back that cushion these vertebrae lose water. This form of spondylolisthesis is called degenerative spondylolisthesis. It is more common after the age of 50 and more common in women than in men. When the discs thin, it is more likely that they can slip out of place.7

You may experience back pain and stiffness, difficulty walking or standing for long periods, and even numbness and tingling in your feet. The first treatment may be to take a break from strenuous activities. You also may be instructed to take an OTC drug like ibuprofen or naproxen. An injection of a steroid drug and physical therapy can help, too. Most of the time, you can get relief from your symptoms without having surgery.7

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