What Is Facet Syndrome?
Facet joints are smooth and slippery surfaces that connect your vertebrae together, allowing you to bend and twist. Although they allow motion, at the same time, they limit your range of motion just enough to prevent accidental injury of your spinal cord.
Facet joints are a common source of back and neck pain. In fact, lumbar facet joints are the cause of nearly a third of chronic lower back pain cases and almost half of all chronic neck pain cases when no herniated disc is present.
When they hurt, your ability to move normally can be negatively impacted. A painful cervical facet joint can immobilize your neck, cause an ache in your shoulder, and force you to turn your whole body just to look from side to side. Pain caused by a lumbar facet joint may leave you unable to stand up straight, hunched over while you walk, and suffering a deep ache from your buttocks to the back of your thighs. These conditions are commonly diagnosed as facet joint syndrome; an inflammation of the fact joints is one of the lesser-known causes of back and neck pain.
Those who suffer from facet joint syndrome often complain of sharp or shooting pain and have numbness or tingling sensations in their legs. Oftentimes the pain intensifies when the body is bent backwards from the pelvis.
If we look at the vertebrae, the ‘facets’ are protrusions that extend from the back of the vertebrae and form a joint (facet joint) with the vertebrae both above and below as demonstrated in the figure.
When your spine is functioning normally, the facet joints function as guides or supports for the spine. The joints are not designed for bearing weight, as the main portion of the vertebrae and the discs are designed to do. The facets of the vertebrae are joined by connective tissue called ligaments that add to the cushioning and strength of the joints, similar to the disc cartilage between the vertebrae.
When the discs themselves become too thin, or they tear, bulge, protrude or rupture, the facet joints begin to get closer to one another. This causes the facets to begin to bear some of the weight that is normally consumed by the vertebrae and the discs. This resulting abnormal pressure (compression) resulting in inflammation of the tissues and nerves, and often a tearing of the facet ligaments, as well as a degeneration of the facets.
Motions that require repeated extensions (bending over with straight legs, driving with your seat far from the wheel, or standing in one position too long) can overload the facet joints, causing inflammation, swelling and pain.
Facet joint syndrome is just that, a syndrome, which is not the same thing as a cause. A syndrome is a group of signs or symptoms that together indicate a particular disease or condition. This means facet joint pain is a symptom of an underlying problem. While your goal is to eliminate the pain, the only way to keep it from returning is to find and correct the underlying cause. Since the root problem varies from one individual to the next there is no one single treatment that works for everyone.
It will take strong partnership between you and a physician that specializes in back pain to resolve the problem but isn’t a lifetime free of the cycle of pain, doctor visits and repeated facet joint injections worth it?