An Overview Of Back Pain and Facet Joint Disorders

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Find out what facet joints are, how back pain arises from them, and, ultimately, how to prevent and recover from facet joint syndrome.
In this article:

  1. What Are Facet Joints?
  2. Where Are the Facet Joints Located?
  3. Who Is Susceptible to Facet Joint Pain?
  4. When Should You Get Your Back Checked for Facet Joint Pain?
  5. Why Is Facet Joint Pain Treatment Necessary?
  6. How Is Facet Joint Pain Treated?


Facet Joints and Back Pain

What Are Facet Joints?

Facet joints, also known as the zygapophyseal joints, are the cartilaginous joints in your spine. They allow your back to be flexible; they let you twist and bend without pain. Nerves come out of your spinal cord through the facet joints, and on to the other parts of your body. The cartilage in these joints allows your vertebrae to move smoothly and painlessly against each other without grinding. Each facet joint is also filled with a lubricating synovial fluid that protects against further wear and tear.
Facet Joint Pain
Facet joint pain occurs when the cartilage is compromised or torn due to injury, pressure, or old age. Over time, the intervertebral discs in your spine degenerate and collapse. This wears down the cartilage, drains the synovial fluid, and eventually leaves bone rubbing against bone, and nerve endings exposed, causing pain.

Where Are the Facet Joints Located?

Facet joints are part of the spine joints. They are visible as two pairs of ridges on each spinal vertebra. The pair that faces upward is called the superior articular facet, while the pair that points downward is the inferior articular facet. They act like hinges of the spinal column.

Who Is Susceptible to Facet Joint Pain?

Facet joint pain occurs in both men and women and is very common among those advancing in age (from ages 40-70). It is also a condition related to osteoarthritis. Spinal cartilage and synovial fluid decrease with age.
Facet joint pain also occurs in younger patients, especially those prone to arthritis or have spinal injuries.

When Should You Get Your Back Checked for Facet Joint Pain?

male patient visiting doctor | An Overview Of Back Pain and Facet Joint Disorders | zygapophyseal joint
Not all back pain is one and the same when it comes to causes. However, there are specific symptoms that are specific to facet joint syndrome. One symptom to look for is back pain that gets worse whenever you’re standing or walking. Also take note of where the pain is concentrated whenever you lean to the right, left, or backward. If the pain is focused on your lower back and to the direction of where you are leaning, it is most likely caused by facet joint syndrome.

Why Is Facet Joint Pain Treatment Necessary?

Pain is usually an indicator of something going wrong in the body, so any kind of pain should be managed. Facet joint pain and facet joint syndrome affects posture and decreases mobility by limiting the weight you can carry and the movements you can do. It can also weaken your muscles — a side effect from trying not to move too much due to the pain. Nerves can also be affected, leading to pain or even numbness radiating towards your buttocks, legs, and feet.

How Is Facet Joint Pain Treated?

There are multiple ways to treat facet joint pain:
Self-care: By improving your posture, keeping your spine aligned, and making sure your form is correct when bending or lifting things, you can keep the painful episodes at bay. You can do this by adjusting many of your standing, sitting, and sleeping habits. Weight loss is recommended as well, as it reduces the load that presses down on the facet joints on a daily basis, thereby alleviating the pain.
Medication: Patients are sometimes given oral anti-inflammatory medications, as well as topical patches, creams, and salves. Muscle relaxants are also given for muscle spasms. In some cases, even mechanical bracing is recommended.
Steroid Injections: This involves the injection of corticosteroid, as well as a numbing agent into the inflamed facet joint. The steroid is responsible for reducing nerve inflammation. Pain relief is expected to last for days, even years given that the patient’s condition improves with physical therapy and exercise. The injections are repeated only when the facet joint pain returns.
Physical Therapy: Many doctors recommend exercise and physical therapy to treat facet joint pain. This is because it works on lifestyle and habit changes. Physical therapists can teach proper walking and lifting techniques. They will also help you out with strengthening your abdominal, lower back, and leg muscles so your body can compensate for the pain. This distributes the pressure of movement evenly.
Here are some exercises to help ease facet joint pain, by physical therapists Bob Schrupp and Brad Heineck: 

Facet joint pain is irreversible, but with the right changes in lifestyle such as proper exercise and posture, you may improve your quality of life. For other management options like physical therapy, oral medication, and surgery, consult your physician.
Do you have any tips on easing your back pains? Share them with us in the comments below!
Up Next: How to Reduce Inflammation of Joints at Home

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