Facet joint

By Michael Perry, M.D.

The facet joints connect the vertebrae together in the spine, allowing for the twisting and flexing that makes upper body movement possible. Facet joint sets extend from the rear of the vertebrae in pairs. Most vertebrae have a facet joint connection on the upper right and upper left side and on the lower right and lower left side. These joint connections interlock with neighboring vertebrae on the top and bottom.

Normal facet joint function

A spinal facet joint has a fairly flat surface. Facet joint surfaces pivot and slide against each another, working to give the neck and back range of motion. Facet joints also support body weight and limit movements that harm the delicate nerve structure in the spine. To limit friction, the joints are covered in cartilage and joint fluid that protect the bone and let the joints pass against each other smoothly.

Each vertebra has two facet joint sets — upward and downward facing — that interlock with adjacent vertebrae. This type of connection lets the spine be both flexible enough for movement but rigid enough to protect the spinal cord and exiting nerve roots.

Treating facet joint issues

Like any joint, a spinal facet joint is prone to age-related deterioration. With age, the cartilage and joint fluid that protect the joints dry out and wear away, causing swollen joints and the development of bone spurs. This inflammation of the facet joints is known as spinal osteoarthritis or facet disease. Symptoms are typically local pain in the neck or back and joint stiffness. If a swollen joint or bone spur causes nerve compression, radiating symptoms can result in the upper or lower body.

For many, symptoms of a facet joint issue aren’t permanently debilitating and can be managed conservatively with the help of a physician. Common treatments for degenerative facet joints can include:

  • Stretching exercise and other physical therapy
  • Dietary changes
  • Injections or other anti-inflammatory medication
  • The use of heating pads, ice packs or a back brace

If you have been through weeks or months of conservative treatment without relief from symptoms, contact Laser Spine Institute. Our minimally invasive spine surgery, including minimally invasive decompression, and in severe cases, minimally invasive stabilization, is an alternative to traditional open back surgery. We use smaller incisions that lead to shorter recovery times and less risk of certain complications.

We also perform a minimally invasive facet thermal ablation where the surgeon uses a laser to deaden the nerves in the area that is causing pain. To learn if you are a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery, contact us today for a no-cost MRI review.*