Facet joint pain is a form of back pain. It may be caused by facet arthropathy, which is a common type of arthritis. It may also coexist with other spinal degenerative disorders.
The facet joints are the connections between the individual backbones of the spine. Nerve roots pass through these joints to go from the spinal cord to the arms, legs, and other parts of the body. Facet joints allow the spine to bend and twist.
When the facet joints wear down, often due to strain and activity, the protective cushion between the joints becomes thinner. When this wear and tear takes place, bones in the facet joint may start to rub together or become stiff. This impacts the alignment of the facet joints and can lead to back pain. Facet joint pain may also be caused by trauma to the spine, such as whiplash.
FAQs About Facet Joint Pain
Continue reading below to get answers to your questions about facet joint pain, or use one of these links to go directly to the information that interests you.
- What are the signs and symptoms of facet joint pain?
- What causes facet joint pain?
- What are risk factors for developing facet joint pain?
- How is facet joint pain diagnosed?
- How is facet joint pain treated?
- Can I treat my facet joint pain at home?
- What are natural remedies for facet joint pain?
- When should I consider surgery for facet joint pain?
What are the signs and symptoms of facet joint pain?
Symptoms of facet joint pain vary depending on the region of the spine that is affected. Facet joint pain in the neck may produce neck pain or shoulder pain and restrict range of motion in the neck. It can also cause headaches. Facet joint pain in the midback can limit range of motion, particularly in twisting the spine. Facet joint pain in the lower back can cause pain in the buttocks and/or thighs or stiffness, making it difficult to stand up straight. Facet joint pain rarely radiates down the leg.
What causes facet joint pain?
Facet joints can degenerate due to repetitive overuse and everyday activities. This can lead to facet arthropathy, which is arthritis in one or several facet joints. Overuse of a facet joint can also cause cysts that generate and compress the surrounding nerve roots. Facet joint pain may also be the result of trauma to the spine from, for example, an injury or vehicle crash.
What are risk factors for developing facet joint pain?
Facet arthropathy, which is degenerative arthritis caused by wear and tear in the joints, is a major risk factor for developing facet joint pain. Facet arthropathy is slightly more common in women than men.
Additional risk factors for developing facet joint pain include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Trauma, such as whiplash
- Heavy lifting or improper posture over time
- Genetic predisposition
How is facet joint pain diagnosed?
Your spine or pain management physician will diagnose facet joint pain through a review of your medical history, a physical, and a neurological exam. The physical exam involves tests to re-create pain, including bending, twisting, or walking. The neurological exam may involve testing reflexes and other responses. Imaging tests like MRIs or X-rays may be performed to pinpoint the area of the spine most affected. Diagnostic spinal injections may also be performed.
How is facet joint pain treated?
Facet joint pain can usually be treated nonsurgically.
Common treatments include:
- Spinal injections. A steroid injection can provide temporary or long-lasting pain relief.
- Physical therapy. Your physician may suggest physical therapy, possibly along with pain-relieving steroid injections so you can do exercises with minimal discomfort.
- Pain medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, may be useful for chronic pain. Prescription pain relievers may be necessary during episodes of extreme pain but are not recommended for long-term relief.
- Radiofrequency ablation. For patients who don’t find relief with conservative treatments or spinal injections, radiofrequency ablation may be recommended. First, a diagnostic nerve block test is performed to confirm the source of pain. Anesthetic is injected along the nerve to “block” pain. If the block is successful, a radiofrequency ablation is then performed, which can often provide pain relief that lasts several months to a year.
Stretches for lower back pain and core strengthening exercises can also help to alleviate symptoms. Surgery may be a treatment option in severe cases.
Can I treat my facet joint pain at home?
Some cases of facet joint pain can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medicines. Stretches for lower back pain and core strengthening exercises can also help to alleviate symptoms.
What are natural remedies for facet joint pain?
Rest may be one of the best ways to alleviate your facet join pain. Slow walking can also be a natural remedy for facet joint pain. Some patients have found relief with acupuncture and physical therapy. Certain exercises may also provide relief. But it’s important to consult your physician before engaging in any exercises, as certain movements could make your pain worse.
When should I consider surgery for facet joint pain?
Our spine and pain management experts at Neurosurgery One only recommend surgery for facet joint pain for patients experiencing severe pain that cannot be relieved by nonsurgical options. For cases involving nerve root compression from enlarged facet joints, degenerative disc disease, or spinal instability, surgery is not typically a recommended option unless it’s a last resort.
When surgery is necessary, spine fusion surgery may be recommended. Spine fusion surgery limits the motion at a painful vertebral segment. This helps to reduce pain from the joint.