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Who Is At Risk For Facet Joint Pain?

The spine is a stack or column of individual bones held together in a way that permits flexible movement. Each individual bone, or vertebra, connects with the one above and below at small at small bony projection points. Where the projections meet, they form joints called facet (fuh-SET) joints.

The facet joints serve some important functions. They add to the stability of the spine, yet at the same time they permit flexibility, bending, and twisting. This can occur thanks to the cartilage that lines the tips of the projections where they touch each other. The cartilage cushions these bony tips, and lubricates them to reduce friction when they glide over each other.

When the facet joints are healthy and functioning properly, you are not even aware they exist. Even when you arch your back, bend forward or sideways, or twist around, normal facet joints have no sensation during spinal movement.

Facet joint pain

However, there are circumstances in which facet joints can cause problematic pain.

  • Thinning cartilage – If the cartilage on the bony tips wears thin, eventually there will be no cushion. This is called arthritis, or osteoarthritis of the spine. Also, when bone rubs on bone, painful bone spurs can develop.
  • Injury – The facet joints are normally sturdy, but a sudden great force such as whiplash or a hard blow can inflame the joints or even dislocate them.
  • Pressure on nerves – If the cushion wears away, the space between the joints is reduced. This can cause pressure on the nerves that branch off the spinal cord and run next to the joints. Ouch! Not only is there pain at the site of the affected facet joint, but the pain can shoot along the length of the nerve, causing what is called radiant pain to other body parts.
  • Muscle spasms – When a facet joint is arthritic or injured, nearby muscles can go into painful spasm as the body reacts to joint pain. This complicates diagnosing facet pain.

Who is at risk for facet joint pain?

Some people have greater risk for facet joint pain. Considering that the two main causes are thinning cartilage and injury, the following conditions make people more vulnerable to such pain:

  • Obesity (puts more wear and tear on the cartilage)
  • Arthritis that accompanies aging
  • Occupational hazards (heavy lifting puts more burden on the spine causing thinning cartilage)
  • Athletic hazards (high impact sports such as football can lead to facet joint strains and dislocation)
  • Accidents (industrial or driving accidents

Here’s the good news: the risk of facet joint pain can be reduced through maintaining good posture, healthy weight, protective occupational/sports gear, and exercise that involves flexibility and balance.

Facet Pain