Small joints called facet joints link the vertebrae in the spine, providing stability and allowing the spine to move and bend appropriately. As these joints age, the cartilage that surrounds them can harden and thicken, causing pain and tenderness. Known as facet joint arthritis or facet arthropathy, this degenerative condition is a key cause of neck and/or lower back pain.
Symptoms of facet joint arthritis
Unlike the nerve root condition sciatica, facet joint arthritis typically presents as pain in a general area or region of the neck or back. The pain associated with facet joint arthritis tends to worsen with physical activity. However, it can be more troublesome in the morning.
The symptoms of facet joint arthritis can be similar to those of other common spine problems, such as a muscle strain.
Signs that you may be suffering from facet joint arthritis include:
- Sporadic, unpredictable pain in the neck or lower back
- Persistent tenderness accompanied by decreased flexibility/movement
- Low back pain that travels down the back of the upper leg
- Neck pain that remains in the shoulder or upper back region
Those commonly affected by facet joint arthritis
Facet joint arthritis is usually the result of wear and tear. Therefore, it most commonly affects individuals 55 and older. Common risk factors include:
- Advanced age as the degenerative effects of arthritis set in over time
- Gender, with women being twice as likely to suffer from the condition
- Obesity since carrying extra weight increases stress and strain on joints in the spine
- Trauma as the sudden and harsh impact of an accident or traumatic injury can trigger onset/increase susceptibility to arthritis
Diagnosing facet joint arthritis
Diagnosing facet joint arthritis can be difficult due to the often sporadic occurrence of symptoms. However, medical imaging tests can be helpful in identifying arthritis in the cervical or lumbar regions of the spine. Imaging tests that may be used to diagnose the condition include:
- CT scan
- Spine X-ray
Facet joint injections, sometimes call facet joint blocks or medial branch blocks can also be helpful in diagnosing the condition. The procedure entails injecting a local anesthetic to block the nerves that sense facet joint pain. If you experience relief, then it’s likely that the identified facet joint is in fact the cause of the problem.
Treating facet joint arthritis
There are various non-surgical treatment options for facet joint arthritis, including:
- Anti-inflammatory medication
- Heat or cold therapy
- Physical therapy
- Radiofrequency ablation to block the nerves that send pain signals from the specific facet joints
If your symptoms persist or get worse, you may require surgery.