What Is Facet Joint Syndrome?
Facet joint syndrome, also known as osteoarthritis, affects the joints that lie behind each vertebrae and allow you to bend and twist your back. The joints also limit and stabilize spinal motion, providing core stability for your body.
In healthy joints, cartilage lubricated with synovial fluid allows the vertebrae to move smoothly against each other. However, wear and tear due to age or injury, or increased pressure due to weight gain or physical labor, can contribute to a loss of these discs and the degeneration of the joint cartilage.
With the loss of cartilage, the bones of the facet joints may rub together, triggering pain in the surrounding nerves. Complications include painful bone spurs that can limit nerve openings. Nearby muscles can also spasm as a protective response, causing poor posture.
Facet Joint Syndrome Symptoms
Facet joint syndrome can be difficult to diagnose immediately, as it may appear as acute pain, without apparent cause, a few times a month or year. The surrounding muscles often feel tender and tense, and the sensation may worsen after sleeping. As the pain progresses, you may find it difficult to bend or twist your spine. Leaning backward will likely bother you more than leaning forward. Simple activities like rising from a chair or riding in a car may become difficult due to pain.
You may feel numbness or tingling in the neck and shoulders if the issue is cervical, or in the buttocks and back of the leg if the problem stems from the lumbar region, although the extremities will likely be unaffected.
Facet Joint Syndrome Treatment
Before proceeding with treatment, it’s important to rule out the possibility of a fracture or herniated disc, which could present with similar symptoms. You will likely need to undergo X-rays to check for abnormalities, as well as a more detailed CT scan. Bone scans are a useful way to show “hot spots” that indicate inflammation.
The primary diagnostic tool, however, is a fluoroscopic injection with a local anesthetic. If the pain ceases after the anesthetic is applied, it’s likely that the diagnosis of facet joint syndrome is correct.
As a first line of treatment, your orthopedic specialist will recommend anti-inflammatory medication along with cortisone shots. Your doctor may suggest ice and heat to further ease swelling and reduce discomfort. Physical therapy is typically sufficient to manage the pain and improve mobility. Electrostimulation and massage may relax the spasms, while an exercise regimen will help strengthen the back and abdominal muscles. During this time, it’s important to practice good posture and avoid daily activities that aggravate the condition.
In more advanced cases, a simple procedure to deaden nerves in the area can provide lasting relief. If these conservative methods are insufficient, a surgeon can fuse the joints using metal screws and bone grafts, preventing further joint instability and pain.
Facet Joint Syndrome Recovery Time
Total recovery time depends on the severity of your condition: after less invasive types of facet joint surgery, patients may be back at work within a week, while more traditional spinal fusion surgery can require up to six months of recovery.
We recommend that you engage in a physical therapy routine for four to six weeks after your procedure. If physical therapy is part of your surgical recovery, you will have to wait several weeks post-surgery before beginning the regimen, and expect to continue for up to six months of treatment.
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