What is Facet Joint Pain?
There is a pair of facet joints at each vertebral level that allow for movement of the spine, but also provide stability. The joint is lined with cartilage, has a capsule, and is about the size of a finger joint. Any condition or injury that leads to damage of the facet joints can cause facet joint pain.
What are the causes?
Like any other joint in the body, the facet joints can become stressed due to everyday wear and tear. Prolonged stress eventually causes the cartilage to thin out leading to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. This loss of cartilage can also cause bone spur formation along the edges of the facet joint. Severe back or neck pain can develop if there is bone-on-bone contact within the facet joint. Degeneration of an intervertebral disc can increase stress on the facet joints leading to pain. Traumatic injuries to the back and neck can also cause facet joint pain.
What are the symptoms?
Lumbar (lower spine) facet joint pain can present as low back pain, buttock pain, and pain in the back of the thighs. Prolonged walking and standing can make the pain worse. Sitting usually relieves the pain as stress is taken off the facet joints. Cervical (upper spine) facet joint pain may be felt in the neck, shoulders, upper or middle back. Headaches may also occur if the upper facet joints are stressed. The pain may be worse with looking up or turning the head.
What treatments are available?
Treatment options may include anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, physical therapy, facet injections, medial branch blocks, and medial branch radiofrequency ablation. Performing an exercise program for the back and neck to stabilize the spine can help prevent facet joint pain. Most people will get prolonged relief from these treatments.