Triathlete’s Spondylolisthesis Leads to Spinal Fusion Surgery

Helen Jenkins is a British triathlete who has competed in the Olympics three times and has twice been named the world champion, but right now she is laying low, recovering after back fusion surgery following a diagnosis of spondylolisthesis as well as crushed nerves.

Spondylolisthesis is a condition that strikes roughly three million people in the United States each year. The spinal disorder most frequently involves the lower spine, and occurs when a vertebrae slips forward onto the bone below it. As happened to Jenkins, it sometimes leads to nerve roots being squeezed, or sometimes to the spinal cord being compressed. Spondylolisthesis is generally graded on a 1 to 5 scale, with a Grade 1 referring to 25% of the vertebral body having slipped forward, Grade 2 referring to a 50% slip, Grade 3 referring to a 75% slip and Grade 4 referring to a 100% slip. When the entire vertebra falls out of place, it is referred to as a Grade 5, and is known as spondyloptosis.

Most younger people who are diagnosed with spondylolisthesis suffer the condition following strenuous activities such as gymnastics, football or weightlifting. In the case of Jenkins, the 33-year-old began having back spasms once she returned to training after having her first child in August. Though she had planned on participating in the World Series in Leeds in 2018, she opted out in order to have the surgery sooner and to allow herself time to rehabilitate and recover before the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.

“Having the surgery now at least gives me the opportunity to try and get back to compete,” she said. “My back is not going to get better. If anything it’s only going to get worse if I do nothing. I have spent a lot of time considering my options and discussing the best course of action with the support network I have. I wasn’t willing to have major surgery on a whim. My priority is to have an active and healthy life with my family in the future. My back, in its current state, even if I stopped competing in triathlon now can’t guarantee me that. Dealing with injuries is one of the toughest parts of sport and I have had to become very good at it. I am resilient, focused and willing to adapt training and do what I can to maintain to be the best my body will allow me to be.”

Spondylolisthesis’ most common symptoms include back pain and stiffness and changes in posture. There can also be shooting pains in the back and radiating into the legs, with activity making the symptoms worse. In many cases it can be treated with exercise, lifestyle changes and pain management, while severe cases may require surgery as Ms. Jenkins required. If you are having back pain and suspect spondylolisthesis, make an appointment with our New Jersey spine specialist and see how we can help.

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