Can facet disease treatment relieve spinal joint pain and stiffness?

By Michael Perry, M.D.

If you have been diagnosed with facet disease, you are probably wondering what your next steps are to find pain relief. You should begin by researching the options for facet disease treatment that are available to you. Most likely, your doctor will recommend a series of conservative treatments to begin with, so start your research there. Determine the facet disease treatments you think would work best for your symptoms and lifestyle, and then have a conversation with your doctor about your options.

What causes my facet disease symptoms?

Facet disease treatment is used to alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with osteoarthritis in the facet joints of the spine. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the wearing away of the soft, smooth coating of cartilage on joints over time. Once cartilage is gone, joints don’t function with the same fluidity they once did. Joint movement feels rough, stiff and painful.

Facet disease goes by several other names as well, including facet arthritis, facet joint syndrome, facet hypertrophy and degenerative facet joints. Facet disorders, if not properly diagnosed and treated, can lead to recurring neck and back problems that can limit your ability to perform daily activities, such as your ability to work or do chores. You can learn additional facts about what facet disease is and why it occurs by visiting our facet disease causes and facet disease overview pages.

When the facet joints begin to wear down after many years of use, these joints can become inflamed and tender. The associated pain may be localized in the neck or lower back or can radiate down the shoulder or upper thigh. Some flexibility may be lost, and leaning backward can cause discomfort. There are many facet disease treatment options, however, that can be beneficial in providing temporary relief for symptoms.

If you’re experiencing what you believe to be facet disease symptoms, contact your physician or health care provider. He or she can properly diagnose the cause of your pain and prescribe a facet disease treatment. In many cases, the symptoms of facet disease can be effectively managed without surgery. There are a large number of methods that can be used — often with great success — to relieve the discomfort that can stem from facet disease.

Of course, these treatments are not designed to “cure” the problem, as the effects of any kind of osteoarthritis — including facet disease — cannot be reversed. That’s because lost cartilage cannot be regrown. Instead, the ultimate goal of facet disease treatment is to help a patient manage his or her pain and to also maintain or even improve overall spinal flexibility.

Conservative options for facet disease treatment

While conservative facet disease treatment can be successful, finding the right treatment or treatments that will work for your specific case can sometimes take time. You should have the right frame of mind before beginning conservative treatment, as many weeks or months can sometimes be required before you begin to experience results.

Furthermore, while there are many different treatment types available, each patient is different and what works for one person might not work for another. When outlining a conservative treatment plan, your physician will keep a number of factors in mind, including your age, overall health, the underlying cause of the problem, the severity of the symptoms and other factors.
With this perspective in mind, here are some examples of popular conservative treatments that many patients turn to when they are experiencing the symptoms of facet disease:

  • Nonprescription medications like over-the-counter acetaminophen. Medications are commonly used to help provide relief from neck or back pain because they can have two benefits: Pain medication can alleviate pain and provide much-needed relief in the short-term; and a break from the pain provides you with the opportunity to explore various other treatment options, such as exercise and physical therapy, that might be impossible when the pain is severe.
  • Diagnostic facet injections. Diagnostic facet injections can be helpful for identifying the exact source of your discomfort, as well as relieving your pain for a period of time. During this common procedure, a mild anesthetic is injected into the facet joint that is believed to be causing your pain. If you experience pain relief right away, your physician knows that the cause and location of the issue has been correctly identified. If relief doesn’t occur, your physician knows that another facet joint or factor is contributing to the discomfort.
  • Yoga, or other low-impact stretching exercises. Stretching techniques can be very effective for increasing flexibility in core muscles and alleviating some of the pressure placed on the spine and facet joints. Stretching can also help improve posture and relax you. With that said, it is very important that you work closely with a physician or physical therapist before beginning any stretching exercises, as the wrong approach can make matters worse.
  • Strength training for muscle tone. The right type of training can increase strength in the core and back muscles that help support the spinal column, alleviating strain on the facet joints. Like stretching, any strength training must be monitored closely by a health care provider to prevent further spinal damage.
  • Water therapy, such as swimming. Low-impact exercises, such as swimming, can be very effective for addressing back problems. Consider running in comparison. When a person runs, each stride is quite jarring as the feet hit the pavement. This stress radiates along the spine and can be quite unbearable to a person with low back pain. Hydrotherapy, on the other hand, does not involve the same difficult repetitive movements. Plus, warm water can help relax muscles and provide some degree of pain relief.
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulations. While the source of some contention in the medical community, chiropractic therapy can be an effective facet disease treatment according to anecdotal evidence provided by some patients who’ve tried it. The central goal of this treatment is to ensure the proper alignment of the spine and to loosen tight and sore muscles that may be contributing to your discomfort.
  • Posture corrections. Poor posture can contribute to upper and lower back pain. Improving one’s posture while sitting, standing and lying down can have a big impact on overall spine health and help ensure a so-called neutral spine alignment.
  • Activity modification. Oftentimes, a physician will recommend a series of lifestyle adjustments to remove factors from a patient’s life that are contributing to spine pain. Quitting smoking is an example, as smoking has been shown to affect the discs and other cartilage in the spine, making an individual more susceptible to degenerative spine conditions, such as facet disease. Other examples of lifestyle changes include dieting and limiting alcohol consumption.
  • The use of a back brace. A back brace is usually seen as a temporary stop gap that can help reduce strain on the lower back and assist in improving posture. However, this isn’t a treatment of facet disease so much as it is a temporary way to reduce pain.
  • Rest. Limited rest can be effective when a person is experiencing back pain because it can allow tense muscles to loosen and facilitate healing. That said, rest is a short-term option and prolonged periods of inactivity can actually make back pain significantly worse.

Some patients who are experiencing pain and reduced mobility associated with osteoarthritis of the facet joints may require more than nonsurgical facet disease treatment to regain function. If this is your condition, there are other options available for pain relief besides highly invasive open spine surgery, such as the minimally invasive, outpatient procedures performed at Laser Spine Institute. For your no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for our procedures, contact us today.