Facet joint syndrome, also called osteoarthritis, is pain found at the joint between two vertebrae. Facet joints are joints that connect the spine’s vertebrae. Facet joints give the spine its flexibility, and enable you to bend and twist. Cartilage covers facet joints and allows them to glide smoothly against one another during movement. Nerves also exit the spinal cord through facet joints as they travel to other parts of the body.
Causes of Facet Joint Syndrome
Facet joint syndrome can be caused by normal wear and tear from aging (arthritis), repetitive stress, and acute trauma.
- Arthritis causes degeneration of the intervertebral discs, which over time causes the disc to wear down and collapse. This narrows the space between vertebrae and affects the way the facet joints line up. Too much pressure on the facet joint causes damage to the articular cartilage. Eventually the cartilage is destroyed leaving bone rubbing on bone, causing bone spurs to develop. In rare cases, bone spurs take up needed space in the foramen (the opening where nerve roots exit the spine) and apply pressure to the nerve roots. As bone spurs grow larger, they can extend into, and cause a narrowing of the spinal canal, called spinal stenosis.
Facet joint syndrome can affect both the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) spine. Symptoms may include:
- Localized tenderness or pain due to inflammation that is generally intermittent and unpredictable.
- Loss of flexibility in the neck.
- Difficulty twisting or bending
- Cervical facet joint problems may radiate into the shoulders or upper back. Pain is rarely present in the front or down an arm into the fingers.
- Lower back pain that radiates down the back of the upper leg. Pain is rarely present down the front of the leg or below the knee.
Nonsurgical treatment options for facet joint syndrome include:
- Physical therapy to strength muscles, improve flexibility, and correct posture
- Activity modifications and rest
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications
- Facet joint blocks
- Laminectomy: a procedure used to create more space for the spinal nerves by removing the lamina of the affected vertebrae. The lamina is the portion of the vertebral arch that forms the “roof” of the spinal canal.
- Spinal Fusion: a surgical technique in which one or more vertebrae of the spine are joined together (fused) to stop the vertebrae from rubbing against one another.