Every time you bend, twist or rotate, you have a facet joint to thank for the motion. These joints link the vertebrae in the spine to each other, and when they’re damaged, the pain can be extreme. Are there any facet joint pain treatments that are effective?
The good news is that most facet joint issues respond well to conservative, non-surgical treatments. And in cases where surgical intervention is needed, we can use minimally invasive spinal procedures that are easy to tolerate and have great success rates.
If you’re dealing with facet joint issues and are looking for potential treatments to alleviate your pain and improve your condition, you’ll find useful information about both non-surgical and surgical options below.
A little about facet joints
As part of the natural aging process, facet joints can degenerate or become damaged. Damage can also occur after a traumatic incident like a sports injury or an automobile accident.
Facet joint pain is quite common, accounting for as much as 63% of all back pain complaints. Facet joint issues can also occur anywhere along the spine, but most commonly strike the L4-L5 at the base of the lumbar spine.
The second most common area is the lumbosacral joint at L5-S1, the place where the lumbar spine meets the sacrum. That’s the wedge-shaped bone connected to the pelvis. When facet joint issues affect the cervical spine, they are most commonly located at C4-C5, right in the middle of the neck.
Common ailments associated with facet joint pain
Facet joint syndrome is one of the most common conditions related to these joints. The facet joints swell up due to spinal arthritis or injury, causing painful symptoms. If the facet joint issue is cervical, symptoms may include bad headaches and neck stiffness. If the affected joint is located in the lower back, there may be extreme pain in the back that extends down into the buttocks and thighs. Facet joint syndrome can make it hard to do simple movements like turning your head, standing up straight, or walking without being hunched over, depending on where the affected joint is located.
Extreme inflammation of the facet joints can also lead to more potentially serious and painful conditions, such as facet hypertrophy. This occurs when a swollen facet joint blocks a nerve pathway, leading to a pinched nerve.
Spondylosis is also common with facet joint issues. Spondylosis is arthritis of the spine but is also used as a bucket term to describe many different kinds of spinal degeneration.
Non-surgical facet joint pain treatments
Once we have diagnosed the facet joint issue at the DISC Spine Institute, we develop a conservative treatment plan. It’s our belief that spinal surgery should not be considered unless and until more conservative options have been exhausted. We are leading spine specialists in minimally invasive spinal care, so we routinely ask ourselves, “What is the least we can do for the best result?”
Initially, your treatment plan may include a combination of anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy, which will typically involve stretching and core strengthening exercises. Many patients with facet joint pain see significant improvement from this type of program and don’t need further treatment. However, if the facet joint pain has still not been eliminated, minimally invasive surgery may be required.
A minimally invasive facet fusion is the most recommended surgical option for eliminating back pain from conditions like facet arthritis and facet joint syndrome. This outpatient procedure is performed through a tiny incision and with no sutures needed.
Spondylosis is usually well addressed with a combination of medication and physical therapy. For more serious cases, decompression surgery may be warranted. Two of the most popular types of minimally invasive decompression surgeries used today to treat this condition are:
- Foraminotomy—Minimally invasive foraminotomy is performed through a very small incision in the back. We place a small tube between the muscle fibers to preserve the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, significantly reducing post-operative pain, recovery time, and the potential for any reinjury. Specialized instruments and microscopes are then used to remove a small piece of bone and soft tissue, taking pressure off of the nerve. This outpatient procedure involves very minimal blood loss and is sutureless.
- Laminectomy—Minimally invasive laminectomy is a type of decompression surgery we perform through a small incision—typically just one-half-inch long—and with great care to preserve muscles, tendons, and soft tissue. The procedure takes about 45 minutes and patients are usually up and walking soon after it’s over. Since it’s an outpatient procedure, they’re able to return home within about an hour. Minimally invasive laminectomy may also be a viable option if more conservative treatments have not relieved the pain of facet hypertrophy.
How to know you have facet joint issues
Symptoms of facet joint disorders can vary depending on your specific condition. However, there are some telltale signs you’ll want to be aware of.
Common symptoms of facet joint problems include:
- Pain that is worse first thing in the morning or at the end of the day
- Pain that changes or worsens because of the weather
- Pain that improves or worsens when you sit or stand
- Pain radiating down your back to your pelvis, buttocks, or thighs
- Weakness in one or both of your arms or legs
- Neck pain extending through one or more of your shoulders or down your arms
- Strong headaches in conjunction with neck pain/stiffness or ringing in the ears
- Hearing the sound of bones grinding or rubbing together during movement
Diagnosing Facet Joint Disorders
It can be hard to know what kind of back ailment you’re dealing with because many of them present with similar symptoms. If you think you just overdid it at the gym or slept funny, you may be unnecessarily extending your pain and putting yourself in danger of a progressively worsening condition. You may be hesitant to visit a spine doctor because you figure the pain will go away on its own. But this emphasizes the importance of coming in to be seen at the DISC Spine Institute. The sooner we diagnose you, the sooner you can be living pain-free.
At your first appointment with the DISC Spine Institute, we’ll perform a comprehensive examination that includes a clinical physical evaluation, your complete patient history including any symptoms you’re feeling, and a review of any previous and current injuries and medical conditions. We’ll also perform any imaging that’s necessary to help us diagnose your facet joint disorder. You may need X-rays, a CT scan, and/or an MRI, depending on your condition. If you already have an MRI, be sure to bring it with you so we review it.
Once we have completed the exam and reviewed any imaging, we will be able to make a diagnosis and determine the best treatment plan to get you pain-free and back to living your life.
About the DISC Spine Institute
Today’s minimally invasive procedures include outpatient treatments and easier surgical treatments with small incisions and a quicker recovery time instead of a long hospital stay. With several DISC spine centers located throughout Dallas-Fort Worth and staffed by top Board-certified orthopedic spine surgeons, the DISC Spine Institute is well-prepared to help patients through their spinal conditions to get back to a pain-free life.
You don’t have to suffer from back pain. We’re here to help. If you’re ready to address your facet joint pain or if you want more information about treatment options, contact the DISC Spine Institute, experts in minimally invasive treatments, the most effective medical procedures to treat and eliminate chronic back pain today.