What is Facet Joint Disease?
Facet joint disease, which is also known as facet syndrome, spinal osteoarthritis, facet hypertrophy or facet arthritis, occurs when the facet joints in the spine degenerate to the point of causing painful symptoms.
Facet joints traverse the entire length of the spine and are located on either side of every vertebrae. As with many joints, facets exist to connect vertebrae together and help facilitate smooth motion throughout the back. They also help keep the spine stabilized and prevent it from motion that could be potentially harmful to the vital nerves that are located within the spinal column.
Facet joints are lined with cartilage which not only helps ensure smooth movement between bones but also serve as shock absorbers for the daily weight and pressure that is naturally put on the spine.
However, like many other joints throughout the body, facets are susceptible to natural wear and tear and can, over time, can experience cartilage degeneration. When this happens, the conjoined vertebrae can begin to rub together which can cause inflammation, swelling and other painful symptoms. Additionally, if the bones rub together for long enough, the body will naturally begin to address the instability within the spine by creating bone spurs, thickened ligaments or even cysts that can potentially pinch or put pressure on adjacent nerves exiting the spinal column. If allowed to progress far enough, these symptoms can cause debilitating pain and make simple, daily activities almost unbearable.
It’s important to note that while the degeneration of the facet joints is known as facet disease, it is not necessarily a progressive or degenerative disease. On the contrary, much like degenerative disc disease, the title actually represents wear and tear that occurs naturally over time within every spine. It should also be stated that many people with facet disease never experience symptoms. It all depends on the location of the degenerated joint, the amount of damage it has experienced and the amount of pressure it is putting on the surrounding nerves.
Symptoms of Facet Disease
As was mentioned previously, the symptoms and amount of pain a person experiences from facet disease depends almost entirely on the location of the degenerated joint, the extent of damage that has occurred and the amount of pressure that it is putting on the surrounding nerve roots. Some people with facet disease may experience no pain whatsoever while others, with the same amount of damage, may be completely incapacitated. Additionally, the type of pain felt depends directly on the location of the affected facet joint. For example, a degenerated joint in the upper spine will generally manifest itself through symptoms in the neck, shoulders and, occasionally, headaches. Conversely, symptoms from a damaged joint in the middle or lower back will typically be felt in the lower back, buttocks or legs. That said, there are some common symptoms that do occur in patients with facet disease, these include:
Throbbing lower back pain that radiates into the buttocks or upper thighs
Pain that goes from the back of the neck out to the shoulders
Tenderness of certain areas of the spine
Pain that is exasperated through certain spine movements, like twisting your back, bending over, leaning back, etc.
Causes of Facet Disease
Facet disease is a very commonly a result of natural wear and tear that occurs within the spine after years of constant use. However, some people can experience advanced degeneration as a result of a traumatic injury to the spine, degenerative diseases or lifestyle choices. These causes can include:
Unexpected, traumatic injuries that occur as a result of a car accident, high impact sports or significant fall
Excess weight or obesity
Lack of physical exercise or activity
Treatment of Facet Disease
Many cases of facet disease do not require surgery and, more often than not, symptoms can be addressed through conservative treatment such as heat therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, rest and/or physical therapy.
However, for more serious cases of facet disease, surgery may be required to relieve pressure on the nerve roots exiting the spinal column, remove bone spurs and help reduce or remove pain caused as a result of a degenerated joint. At Atlantic Brain and Spine, our surgeons are trained in the most advanced minimally invasive spine procedures that can help treat facet disease.
For more information about facet disease or treatment options, please contact our spine specialists.