Causes of facet pain in the spine

Facet pain is usually caused by degeneration of the cartilage that lines the spinal joints. These joints — called facet joints — are hingelike structures where adjacent vertebrae meet and articulate. In healthy joints, the cartilage provides the smooth surface and padding necessary for movement without friction. Over time, however, the cartilage can wear away, primarily due to the natural aging process.

Other factors that can accelerate facet cartilage deterioration include poor posture, smoking, strenuous lifting and obesity. Traumatic injuries like vertebral fractures and certain illnesses can also contribute. Severe facet pain and joint inflammation can be diagnosed as facet disease or spinal osteoarthritis.

Whether mild or severe, facet pain can become chronic and debilitating, making once-simple tasks like grocery shopping or working in the yard into painful ordeals. Learning about the causes of facet pain in the spine is an important step toward getting treatment that can help you regain an active lifestyle.

Types of facet pain

It’s possible to categorize two different types of facet pain. The first is caused by local joint inflammation and nerve irritation. Symptoms include joint stiffness, swelling, sudden joint lockage and reduced range of motion. A second type of facet pain is related to nerve compression from a bone spur. Bone spurs develop as the body’s natural attempt to stabilize joints that are experienced from bone-on-bone friction. While not painful themselves, these growths can narrow the spinal canal or a nerve root exit and put pressure on nerves. Common symptoms from nerve compression include:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Shooting pain
  • Muscle weakness

These symptoms can occur both locally and as radiating symptoms that travel into the upper or lower body along the length of the nerve.

Facet pain treatments

Upon diagnosis from a physician, most forms of facet pain can be treated with conservative methods like physical therapy, hot/cold compresses and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. While many patients report significant pain relief and a return to mobility from nonsurgical treatment, for others weeks and months of therapy can cause no improvement or even a worsening of symptoms.

If you are considering surgery to treat your facet pain but are concerned about some of the risks associated with traditional open back procedures, contact Laser Spine Institute. Our minimally invasive spine surgery treats the causes of facet pain using smaller incisions that spare muscles, leading to less scarring and a dramatically shorter recovery period.^ To learn more about becoming a candidate, reach out to us today for your no-cost MRI review.*