6 Clues That Your Back Pain is From Facet Joint Problems
Almost everyone gets back pain at one time or another, right? You lifted that heavy bin the wrong way, your worn-out workstation chair is a nightmare, you were rear-ended, you carry chronic tension in your shoulders, you tried to return an impossible tennis serve and threw out your back…the list goes on and on. But what if you have occasional periods of acute pain and there’s no apparent cause? This might be a signal that your facet joints are in trouble.
The facet joints are small, cartilage-lined points of contact where each individual backbone (vertebra) meets the one above and below it. They both enable your spine to flex during movement and also limit its range of motion. However, if the cartilage wears thin, pain can occur. Things like aging (wear and tear), obesity (extra weight creates a greater burden), a previous injury or trauma to the spine, and weight-bearing jobs are risk factors for facet joint damage.
If you have had no recent back strain or injury but you are starting to experience episodes of upper back pain, lower back pain, or pain that radiates outward from your spine, here are 6 clues that your facet joints may be the source of it:
- The pain occurs occasionally and unpredictably, perhaps scattered over several months.
- When the pain occurs, pressing on the skin in that area may cause soreness or tenderness; the muscles there tighten in response to pressure or movement (guarding reflex).
- It may not hurt to bend or lean forward, but doing it backward produces a definite “ouch!”
- If the pain is in the upper spine (between the base of the skull and the top of the ribcage), there may also be shooting or burning pain that radiates across the shoulders and upper back, but not down the arms or into the fingers.
- If the pain is in the lower back, facet joint compression can send nerve pain down into the buttocks and the back of the upper leg (pain that shoots down the front of the leg, or below the knee, is a symptom of another back problem called a herniated disc).
- Sitting for long periods aggravates the lower back pain episode, and riding in a car may be nearly intolerable.
Any back pain that occurs more than once from no particular cause is reason to see a doctor. If facet joint pain is suspected, most doctors will administer one or more numbing injections into the area of spinal pain as a diagnostic test. If the injections bring relief, facet joint deterioration is the culprit. If not, the facet joints are ruled out. However, the Sperling Medical Group suggests seeing a doctor who specializes in diagnosing back pain by first using imaging such as MRI to look for abnormalities. Diagnostic injections may still prove necessary, but sometimes imaging finds important information that can rule injections in or out.
In its early stages of cartilage deterioration, facet joint pain often responds to posture improvements, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory products, and applications of heat or cold. When such measures no longer work, more invasive procedures may be recommended. Our Center offers a non-invasive alternative to treatments that penetrate the skin in order to deaden the nerves. Our treatment is called MR-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS), which provides durable pain relief for most patients.
If you are experiencing occasional episodes of acute back pain, contact us for more information on diagnostic MRI of the spine as well as facet joint pain treatment using MRgFUS.
- Facet Pain