What Is Facet Disease?
Facet disease — also called facet syndrome — describes degeneration of the facet joints in the spine. Facet joints connect vertebrae and they work with the intervertebral discs to provide support, stabilization, shock absorption and flexible movement within the spine. Like other joints in the body, facet joints are covered with smooth, tough cartilage that enables frictionless movement.
With age, wear, tear and repetitive stresses, cartilage erodes and the joints begin to weaken and degenerate. If complete cartilage erosion occurs, adjacent vertebrae rub together with painful bone-on-bone friction. Facet joint degeneration can lead to pain, symptoms and decreased mobility. While facet disease can occur anywhere along the spine, it most commonly develops in the cervical and lumbar spine. The cervical and lumbar regions bear the most weight and have more motion than the thoracic region of the spine.
Causes and Risk Factors
Age-related degeneration is the leading cause of facet disease. Natural wear, tear and daily stresses cause joint degeneration over time. The facet joints can progressively degenerate from repetitive stresses due to poor posture, a physically demanding job, or years of playing sports and engaging in high-impact activities that place stress and pressure on the spine. Direct trauma from a fall, car accident or sports accident can injure facet joints and contribute to joint damage and deterioration.
The primary risk factor for developing facet disease is age. Other risk factors include obesity, poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle, having a physically demanding job, and genetics.
The location of the damaged joint and the severity of damage largely affect the presentation of symptoms. Some people with facet disease experience no pain or symptoms at all. In many cases, facet disease causes localized pain, stiffness, tenderness and loss of mobility around the damaged joint. The pain may be aggravated by movements like bending, lifting or twisting. Pain and stiffness are typically worse in the morning and after long periods of inactivity. Degenerative changes can also produce a grinding or grating sound in the joint during movement.
In some cases, facet joint degeneration affects nearby spinal structures. The facet joints are innervated by spinal nerves and these nerve roots can become compressed or trapped by changes within the joint. Nerve compression in the cervical spine can cause headaches and radiating pain, weakness, numbness or tingling down the neck, shoulder, arm, hand and fingers. Nerve compression in the lumbar spine can cause sciatica, which is nerve pain characterized by one-sided pain, weakness, numbness or tingling down the low back, buttock, thigh, calf and foot. Sciatic pain is usually described as sharp, shooting, burning or electric.
Treatment and Prevention
While joint degeneration can’t be revered, facet syndrome can be treated and managed with conservative treatments. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and symptoms, slow the progression of degeneration and maintain optimal joint mobility. As a starting point, your doctor may prescribe some or all of the following:
- Activity modifications. Try to limit activities that cause pain and symptoms, like heavy weightlifting, or activities that require a lot of bending and twisting.
- Medications. Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen can help relieve pain, swelling and inflammation. If you’re experiencing more severe pain, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications or muscle relaxants.
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist will work with you to improve muscle and joint strength and increase spinal flexibility and range of motion.
- Injections. A corticosteroid injection directly into the spine can help reduce inflammation, irritation and pain around compressed nerve roots. The effects of an injection are temporary but may provide pain relief for several months or even a year.
- Exercise and weight management. Regular exercise is crucial to long-term management of facet disease. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, water aerobics, ellipticals and yoga can help you remain active and preserve joint strength and mobility. Combine exercise with a weight management program that helps you lose excess body weight and decrease stress and pressure on your joints.
Unfortunately, while conservative measures can slow the rate of degeneration, they can’t stop it completely. There may come a point when severe joint damage and pain requires surgical treatment.
If you’re experiencing significant pain, a loss in mobility that’s affecting your ability to perform daily tasks, or nerve pain that could indicate nerve damage, surgery may be a treatment option. Decompression procedures and fusion procedures are common surgical techniques to treat facet disease.
Contact Integrity Spine and Orthopedics to Learn More About the Conditions We Treat
At Integrity Spine and Orthopedics, we specialize in identifying, diagnosing and treating a wide range of acute and chronic back, spine and joint conditions. Our board-certified orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgeries to reduce pain and improve mobility for patients diagnosed with spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs, a pinched nerve, spinal stenosis and more.
Some of the primary benefits of minimally invasive surgery include:
- Smaller incisions
- Fewer complications and bloss loss during surgery
- Less damage to surrounding muscle and soft tissues
- Lower risk of infection
- Less post-op pain and less reliance on strong pain medications during recovery
- Faster recovery and rehabilitation
- Better cosmetic results with minimal scarring
If you’re experiencing back or joint pain, weakness, or a loss of mobility, or have questions about what is facet disease syndrome reach out to us today to schedule a consultation with our team. We provide compassionate and comprehensive care to help you find relief from pain and get back to doing the activities you love.
Call us at 904-456-0017 or contact us online to request an appointment.