Our spine is made up of vertebrae with large bone discs in the front and two facet joints in the back. Each of these functions as a three-joint complex, a tripod design that enables the vertebrae to stay together but to also bend and twist.
When everything works well, it’s an amazing support system for the human body. But as we age, the facet joints and the discs intended to help provide cushioning can wear down, leading to arthritic pain, swelling, and stiffness.
This is facet joint syndrome.
Face joint syndrome
When a patient has pain that originates in one or more of the facet joints, this is known as facet joint syndrome or facet arthropathy. This can happen as parts of the spine degenerate through osteoarthritis. This can place body weight unevenly upon the facet joints, and this extra load causes wear and tear on the joints.
Over time this causes the joint to change with damage. The joint capsule thins, smooth cartilage breaks down and becomes irregular, and bone spurs may form. This makes it difficult for the facet joint to now move freely and fluidly. This leads to inflammation and irritation, similar to the way a knee joint can degrade. The brain senses pain through the joint capsule sensory nerves. This makes the muscles stiffen and spasm.
What are the symptoms of facet joint syndrome?
Facet joint syndrome often won’t show any pain or symptoms, but then an event can trigger the start of pain. When the pain is originating in the facet joints, it is often diffuse. It can be a dull ache in the lower back directly over the spine area in question. This can spread to the buttocks. If the inflamed joint is in the neck, the pain can radiate into the shoulders and the back of the skull.
Bending backwards, twisting sideways — these kinds of movements toward the affected joint will cause pain. Standing and inactivity can worsen the pain. Sitting or leaning forward may relieve the pain. Facet joint pain can be misdiagnosed as a herniated disc, as the symptoms can be similar.
Why does this happen?
Changes in the facet joints can begin with the deterioration of a vertebral disc. As the load of the body weight shifts to the facet joint, the cartilage breaks down, the joint space narrows, and the bones rub together.
In these cases, Dr. Trujillo always begins with conservative treatments, such as physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, topical patches, muscle relaxers, and other options. But these often don’t relieve the patient’s pain.
The next step is often injection of corticosteroid combined with an analgesic-numbing agent directly into the painful joint. This sounds dangerous, but the procedure is really quite simple thanks to Dr. Trujillo’s expertise. Steroids can reduce the swelling and inflammation of the nerves. The pain relief can last from days to years. This often can make it possible for the patient to improve his or her overall condition through physical therapy and exercise.
Do you have symptoms of facet joint syndrome? Call us at Summit Healthcare Pain Associates, (855) 768-4968, and let Dr. Trujillo check you out.