Facet joints are joints in the spine that allow your back to bend, twist and flex. Every vertebra has an upward and downward facing facet joint wrapped in cartilage that lubricates and cushions the adjacent bones. Healthy facet joints glide smoothly against one another to ensure fluid articulation of the spine. If the cartilage between joints wears down, however, it may no longer provide enough padding to prevent the bones from rubbing against one another. This can lead to joints becoming damaged and inflamed. Prolonged friction can also cause bone spurs to form, exacerbating symptoms.
Facet disease is a term used to characterize the deterioration of cartilage between these joints. Although the degradation can be caused by sudden traumatic injury, in most cases it’s the result of the natural aging process. Symptoms of facet disease — also called osteoarthritis of the spine — will depend upon the location of the damaged joint, but common characteristics include stiffness, radiating pain, throbbing, locking of the joints and crepitus, a crunching sensation as the bones rub together. If you are experiencing any of these conditions and suspect your discomfort may stem from facet disease, consult your primary care physician to begin the diagnostic process. Some of the most common tests used to identify facet disease include:
- An in-office examination, during which the doctor will visually inspect your spine, evaluate your range and ease of motion and press against specific areas in your neck or back to see if they are sensitive to external pressure
- An X-ray to determine if the joints are enlarged or have formed bone spurs
- A CT scan to gauge the condition of the cartilage
- An MRI to obtain a more detailed image of the soft tissue around the facet joint
- The injection of a local anesthetic into the facet joint to see if it deadens the pain
- Blood work to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms such as an infection or cancer
After a diagnosis of facet disease has been made, your doctor will be able to recommend treatment options to manage your pain. In many cases, patients can find relief using conservative strategies such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, lifestyle changes and exercises. In some cases, surgery may be necessary if other methods fail to significantly reduce symptoms.
If you are enduring chronic neck or back pain caused by facet disease, you may be a candidate for the minimally invasive surgeries performed at USA Spine Care. Our board-certified surgeons+ have improved the quality of life for tens of thousands of patients. The first step in determining if one of our outpatient procedures is right for you is to obtain a free MRI review.* Learn how by contacting a member of the USA Spine Care team today.
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