What is Facet Joint Disease? Diagnosis and Treatment

What is Facet Joint Disease? Diagnosis and Treatment

The aches, pains and stiffness that come with facet joint disease affects millions of people each year, ranging from a moderate challenge to a debilitating condition that negatively impacts nearly every part of life. Routine activities, from working around the house to spending time with friends or participating in sports, can become difficult or even impossible to accomplish. If you are living with facet joint disease, it’s important to know that you are not alone and that effective treatment is possible. 

For many people, receiving an accurate diagnosis of the sources of pain and a personalized treatment plan are critical steps on the road to relief and a healthy, active lifestyle. This informative overview can help anyone understand the basics of facet joint disease and work more closely with providers to find the relief they deserve. 


Facet Joint Disease Explained

Also known by terms such as facet disease, facet syndrome or facet arthritis, facet joint disease is a condition where the facet joints in the spine become painful and stiff, often due to age-related factors. In the spine, most of the vertebrae have two pairs of facet joints that link with the vertebrae above and below. Together, the facet joints enable the spine to bend and flex while allowing it to be strong enough to support the upper body and protect the spinal cord. 

Like other joints in the body, the facet joints are protected by a layer of cartilage and lubricated by joint fluid that reduces friction. If the cartilage wears down and the joint fluid dries out, it can cause increased friction and inflammation in the facet joints, leading to facet joint disease and associated symptoms. 


What Causes Facet Joint Disease?

The primary cause of facet joint disease is the natural aging process, but other factors including injury and autoimmune diseases can also cause the condition. Age-related facet disease, a form of osteoarthritis, occurs when cartilage naturally becomes drier and more brittle over time. The increased bone-on-bone contact inflames the facet joints, causing pain and stiffness. 

Facet joint disease is most common in the cervical spine in the neck and lumbar spine in the lower back. This is because these regions are more flexible and undergo more stress than the thoracic (middle) spine. 


Facet Joint Disease Symptoms

Symptoms of facet joint disease can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Frequent symptoms include:

  • Stiffness in the neck or back
  • Aches and pains in the neck or back
  • A grinding or popping sensation in the joints, known as crepitus

In addition to localized symptoms, swollen and inflamed facet joints can also put pressure on surrounding nerves, causing radiating pinched nerve symptoms including:

  • Shooting pains into the upper or lower extremities
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness

Facet joint disease symptoms can be similar to other spine conditions, which is why a thorough and accurate diagnosis is needed to ensure proper treatment. 


Diagnosing Facet Joint Disease

To find the source of symptoms and reach a diagnosis for facet joint disease, doctors generally take the following steps:

  • Review medical history
  • Discuss symptoms and ask how they are affecting movement and activity
  • Perform a physical evaluation including a hands-on examination of painful areas and movement and posture tests
  • Order diagnostic testing and imagery, including X-ray and MRI 

In some cases, diagnostic tests such as nerve blocks may be ordered to pinpoint the exact location of symptoms. By injecting a numbing agent into the facet joint that is believed to be causing pain, providers can confirm it as the source of facet joint disease if the patient experiences relief. 


Facet Joint Disease Treatments

Upon diagnosis, many doctors will recommend an initial course of conservative therapies including rest, ice, a heating pad, cold compression therapy and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Combined with a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet and regular moderate exercise, many people are able to manage facet joint disease with basic therapeutic measures. 

If symptoms persist or worsen, more involved treatment may be attempted including:

Severe cases of facet joint disease that do not respond to nonsurgical therapies, especially if nerve compression is involved, can benefit from surgical intervention. With advances in surgical technology and technique, surgeons can treat facet joint disease with a minimally invasive, outpatient procedure. Common surgical techniques include ablation procedures that carefully burn painful nerves in the facet joints, as well as procedures to remove damaged spinal material, such as bone spurs, that are causing nerve compression. 


Contact PPOA Today to Start Your Facet Joint Disease Treatment Journey

Whether you are dealing with mild, moderate or severe facet joint disease pain, the caring team at Physician Partners of America (PPOA) can help. Our expert pain management specialists can help you find the exact sources of your symptoms and develop an individualized care plan that puts you on the path to relief. We are passionate about helping people get their lives back from pain and regain the healthy, active lifestyle they deserve. 


Contact us today to learn more or schedule an appointment.