Spinal Instability

Spinal instability is a spine condition that occurs when there is abnormal movement or sliding between vertebrae in the spine. The spine is made up of a series of vertebrae (small bones) and discs. The discs are located between the vertebrae and function to provide stability and proper alignment of the vertebrae. Discs can wear down and degenerate over time, causing problems like degenerative disc disease.

Symptoms of Spinal Instability

A shooting or “stabbing” pain during certain motions is the most common symptom of spinal instability. Sufferers of the condition may also experience spasms or “locking” of the back. When the vertebrae slide or rotate, the surrounding nerves are affected, sometimes leading to pain in the back and legs.

What Causes Abnormal Spinal Movement?

A patient consults with Dr. KhuranaIn addition to vertebrae and discs, the spine is also made up of a series of muscles, ligaments, and joints that all work together to maintain balance and alignment, keeping the spine strong while also allowing the necessary flexibility for movement. Like an engine, all of the separate components must function properly in order to keep the entire system working. When damage or injury occurs to one it will throw the system off balance and can lead to spinal instability.

The three components of the spinal column are:

  • The active system – Muscles and tendons
  • The neural system – Nerves that communicate with other systems in order to control the muscles in the spine
  • The passive system – Vertebrae, intervertebral discs, facet joints, and ligaments

An injury or disruption in one system will lead to problems and instability in the spine. Some of the most common injuries are:

  • Pinched nerve (radiculopathy)
  • Fractured vertebra
  • Herniated disc
  • Muscle or tendon strain

In injury to any facet joint can function as a chain reaction, leading to vertebrae movement and back pain. For example, when one of the intervertebral discs degenerates, it can lead to arthritis and bone spurs in the facet joints.

Other factors that can cause vertebrae movement include:

  • Complications from spinal surgery
  • Trauma
  • Side effect of secondary conditions like scoliosis, spinal tumors, or an infection

Please read this article on spinal instability from WebMD.

Treatment Options

Anyone suffering from either chronic or acute back pain should seek medical attention. A comprehensive physical exam to determine the source and range of the back pain will be performed, and diagnostic imaging tests of the spine like x-rays, CAT scan, and MRI may be performed as well, all of which are available through the Marina del Rey Hospital and can be performed by Dr. Khurana in the course of your diagnosis and treatment.

Patients diagnosed with spinal instability are usually first prescribed a back brace, along with physical therapy and an exercise regime designed to strengthen and help stabilize the muscles in the back for greater support. Conservative treatment can usually help to alleviate pain and stabilize the spine.

In cases where pain persists over time and a patient does not respond to conservative treatment, surgery may be an option to correct the instability. In order to best determine the appropriate treatment options, patients are advised to contact an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible.

Next, learn more about spine trauma.


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The information available on this web site is provided for informational purposes only. This information is not intended to replace a medical consultation where a physician's judgment may advise you about specific disorders, conditions and or treatment options. We hope the information will be useful for you to become more educated about your health care decisions.