Within the spine (or “backbone”), vertebral bones, cartilage and ligaments work together to protect the spinal cord, support the weight of the upper body and facilitate movement. Each component of this complex system is dependent upon the other. Because of this, what begins as a minor spinal complication can eventually lead to chronic pain and widespread difficulties.
As we age, our spine begins to naturally degenerate over time and due to overall wear and tear incurred through the years. Intervertebral discs lose water content and the spinal column begins to reflect its years of use from bending, stretching and moving. Every part of the spine can be affected by age-related changes – Even the joints that connect the spinal vertebrae, which are referred to as the “facet joints.” Most vertebra have one facet joint located on each side.
Like most other joints in the body, facet joints are lined with cartilage. These regions of cartilage provide shock-absorption and cushioning within the joints while preventing bones from grinding against one another. Without an adequate amount of protection-providing cartilage, joints can become painful and unstable.
Facet joint disease, also known as “facet arthritis” or “facet hypertrophy,” occurs when cartilage within the facet joints becomes worn down and causes uncomfortable or even debilitating symptoms. Although every section of the spine can suffer from facet joint disease, it most commonly affects the lumbar (lower back) region of the spine. This makes sense as the lower back bears a substantial amount of strain from everyday life.
Facet Syndrome CausesFacet disease is primarily caused by the body’s natural aging processes and the stress placed upon the spine by years of use. However, several factors can hasten or intensify facet joint disease, such as:
• A job that requires intensive manual or physical labor or repetitive, strenuous movements
• Unexpected injuries, such as those that may occur during a high-impact sport, motor vehicle accident or fall
• Spondylolisthesis, a condition wherein one vertebra slips out of place and slides forward over the vertebra below it
• Excess weight or having obesity
• Incorrectly lifting a heavy object
• A lack of exercise or physical activity
If you believe you may be at risk for facet joint disease or any related conditions, schedule an appointment with one of our spine specialists to discuss preventative measures. By living mindfully and eliminating key risk factors, you can often proactively manage facet joint disease and reduce its severity.
Facet Syndrome SymptomsSymptoms associated with facet joint disease depend entirely on the location of the affected facet joint within your spine. If the affected joint is located in your lower spine, symptoms are more likely to be felt in the buttock, thighs and legs. Conversely, if the affected joint is in the upper spine, symptoms are generally felt around the neck and shoulders. General symptoms include:
• Lower back pain that can radiate into the buttocks or upper thighs, if the lower back area is affected
• Pain traveling through the back of the neck and into the shoulders, if the neck region is inhibited
• Bone spurs
• Stiffness and trouble participating in everyday activities, such as rising from bed
• Localized tenderness
• Loss of flexibility and a limited range of motion
• Muscle spasms
Episodes of pain may last for moments, weeks or even months. Because of their unpredictable nature, the symptoms of facet disease are often dismissed or assumed to be unalterable. Additionally, the signs of facet joint disease may also be evidence of a number of additional spine-related conditions. Obtaining a comprehensive and clear diagnosis is imperative to receiving the treatment you need.