Facet joints, in the spine, link the vertebrae to each other. These small, hinge-like connectors are what allow the spine to flex and your body to bend and twist. But, things like weight gain, overuse, injury, poor posture, and the natural aging process can wear down the cartilage that lives inside the facet joints, weakening them and causing pain. This is known as facet arthritis.
The facets have a smooth surface comprised of cartilage. The normal motion of these joints allows the facets to glide over each other. But inflammation of the facet joint causes the cartilage to erode, leading to pain and stiffness and limiting motion. Any joint in the body, like those in your knees, hands, and feet, can become inflamed, and, when it does, pain usually follows. When inflammation and irritation occur in the facet joints, the pain can be especially unbearable because the impact is felt in the spine or neck.
Symptoms of Facet Arthritis
The symptoms of facet arthritis can mimic other back conditions, so it’s important to see a doctor in order to be properly diagnosed and prescribed a treatment plan. Typical symptoms of facet arthritis include:
Dangers of Delaying Treatment
Facet arthritis can resolve with minimally invasive treatments, but, when left unchecked, it can progress to more serious conditions. As the cartilage wears away and the facet joints continue to degenerate, bone spurs can form, further limiting movement. Bone spurs can also grow into the spinal canal, compressing nerves and causing narrowing in what is already a narrow area. This condition is called spinal stenosis, and it can be the cause of more severe back or leg pain.
Are you a candidate for surgery?
Facet arthritis is one of the spinal conditions that can often be treated successfully without surgery. Your spine doctor may first prescribe a combination of physical therapy, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen and massage. If pain persists, a facet joint injection may provide relief. The DISC Spine Institute uses pain mapping to pinpoint the facet joints which may be causing the pain. This treatment has an excellent success rate and is performed within just a few minutes right in the office and with no hospitalization needed. Patients can walk out on their own right after.
A conservative treatment known as a medial branch block can also eliminate pain by injecting a small amount of anesthetic or steroid near the affected joint. Some patients also see great results after having a minimally invasive procedure called rhizotomy, which uses heat or radio frequencies to impact the pain-sensing nerves in the joint.
If the pain has still not been significantly reduced or eliminated, minimally invasive surgery may be needed. Thankfully, a facet fusion, the most recommended surgical option for eliminating back pain from facet arthritis, is an outpatient procedure that can be performed with a tiny incision and no sutures needed.
Any surgical procedure requires a certain amount of downtime during the recovery period while the body heals and the affected area strengthens. However, a facet fusion is a relatively simple procedure that requires no hospitalization. Patients typically feel minimal discomfort in the day after the surgery, which can usually be treated with over-the-counter pain medication. Most people return to work within a week.