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What Is Facet Joint Osteoarthritis?

Facet Joint Osteoarthritis Means Pain and Decreased Spine Motion

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Updated June 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Most often, you hear of hip osteoarthritis or knee osteoarthritis. However, other joints are common sites of osteoarthritis as well. For example, facet joint osteoarthritis causes pain, stiffness, and lost motion in the back.

Where Are Your Facet Joints?

The facet joints are located on the back of the spine. Between each pair of vertebrae, there are two facet joints (one on each side of the spine). A facet joint is comprised of two bony knobs. Where the knobs come together, they connect two vertebrae. The surfaces of the facet joints are covered by articular cartilage.

What Causes Facet Joint Osteoarthritis?

Facet joint osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of the articular cartilage. Previous fractures and injuries can cause facet joint osteoarthritis later in life, but the main cause is spinal degeneration, which occurs slowly over time.

What Symptoms Are Associated With Facet Joint Osteoarthritis?

Pain is the primary symptom associated with facet joint osteoarthritis. Symptoms of nerve compression usually do not occur with facet joint osteoarthritis. However, when a bone spur develops at the edges of the facet joint, it can rub on a nerve and cause numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness.

How Is Facet Joint Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

As with most arthritic conditions, facet joint osteoarthritis is diagnosed following a physical examination, medical history, and x-rays or other imaging studies. The images will show degeneration of the spine and facet joints, as well as bone spurs around the affected facet joint.

Your doctor may also perform a diagnostic injection (using special dye and a fluoroscope) to precisely locate where the pain is coming from. In such cases, numbing medication is injected into the facet joint or the nerve going to the facet joint.

How Is Facet Joint Osteoarthritis Treated?

The goal of treating facet joint osteoarthritis is to reduce pain and inflammation. Short periods of rest are helpful. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxers, and even tapering doses of steroids are used to control symptoms.

Certain exercises and body positions can take pressure off the facet joints. A physical therapist can help you learn positions and exercises that offer relief.

Facet joint injections of an anesthetic or steroid medication are a possibility if you are not finding relief with other conservative treatments.

Surgery is rarely needed, but there are two procedures used when necessary. Facet rhizotomy is a surgical procedure that involves severing a small nerve that goes to the facet joint. Fusion can be performed to join two vertebrae for the purpose of stopping movement of the facet joint -- but multilevel fusions are typically not recommended.

Sources:

Facet Joint Arthritis. Orthogate. July 28, 2006.
http://www.orthogate.org/patient-education/lumbar-spine/lumbar-facet-joint-arthritis.html

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