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5 Symptoms Tell You It Might Be Facet Joint Osteoarthritis

Have you had the experience of bending slightly backward, and suddenly your lower back yells “OUCH”? Or you’re looking up at the cobweb in the corner, and pain shoots into your right shoulder? These could be symptoms of a condition called osteoarthritis of the spine, also known as facet joint arthritis.

Osteoarthritis most often begins when people are middle-aged but may not produce immediate symptoms. That’s because it’s a gradual process of wear and tear. Joints are the places where the end of one bone meets the end of another, like knees, elbows and knuckles. The bone ends are lined with cartilage that protects the bony surface while allowing a gliding motion of bone against bone.

The most common type of joint is called a synovial joint. The cartilage layer on each bone end is joined by a thin capsule of a lubricant called synovial fluid that further reduces friction when movement occurs. Ligaments, tendons and muscles support joints so they are flexible yet limited in their range of motion.

The Spine has Synovial Joints

If someone asks you to name three joints in the body, there’s a good chance that facet joints won’t be on your list. That’s because a) most of us haven’t heard about them and b) knee joints are obvious but spinal joints are not. But if you think about using your ability to twist, bend, and flex, it makes sense that the stack of spinal bones called vertebrae has to be jointed or your posture and movement from the hips up would be like that of a robot.

The facet joints on the back of vertebrae are the most flexible in the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back). Test it out. Turn your head from side to side. Now roll it around. While sitting upright in your chair, raise your arms overhead and reach while leaning left and right. Return to the middle, lower your arms, and lean forward a bit from the waist. All of these movements, and more, are possible thanks to the facet joints in your spine. However, if you had aches or pains while moving, read on.

Osteoarthritis of Synovial Joints

As we get older, the cartilage between facet bones can become thinner and more brittle, with little flakes breaking off into the synovial fluid. This inflames its capsule, causing irritation and discomfort. As the process continues to erode the cartilage, more friction occurs with bone rubbing on bone, causing it to thicken and swell. In turn, bone spurs can develop, or tiny fractures in the bone itself. Discomfort increases. Finally, as the joint is increasingly deformed, it affects the ligaments, tendons and muscles that are trying to make up for the damage. They, too, can become irritated and inflamed.

5 Symptoms of Facet Joint Osteoarthritis

Extreme pain is unlikely to be the first sign of facet joint osteoarthritis because the condition happens gradually over years. Most people are likely to ignore occasional aches in the neck/shoulder area or lower back. Indeed, sporadic back discomfort is most often the result of poor posture, a sudden ill-advised movement, or injury—and these discomforts tend to heal by themselves. Simple solutions like taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, applying heat or cold, and getting extra rest will handle the problem.

On the other hand, pain that gets your attention and starts to occur more often, or linger, can be a sign of something more serious and chronic. Here are 5 symptoms that might be a sign of facet joint arthritis:

  1. In its early stages, acute pain in the neck area or lower back may happen several times a year without warning, and not connected with an injury. The pain may not last long and seem to go away on its own.
  2. There may be tenderness to touch or pressure in soft tissue surrounding the area where pain occurs. This is because the muscles or ligaments are trying to compensate for the pain, and when the muscles react to painful movement by “guarding” they become tense and strained.
  3. Bending backward creates more pain than bending forward because it compresses the joints which are located on the rear of the spine.
  4. Facet joint deterioration in the lumbar spine (lower back) causes pressure on the nerves that run from the spinal cord outward through the joints to the back of the legs. Shooting pain into the buttocks and backs of the upper legs may be a sign of facet joint pain (or other spinal cord problem).
  5. Facet joint arthritis in the cervical spine (neck area) causes pressure on the nerves that run into the shoulders and upper back. Shooting pain in those areas may signal facet joint arthritis.

For any back pain that occurs more than once after you thought it was “cured”, see a doctor for correct diagnosis. If osteoarthritis is the problem, there are many ways to slow down deterioration and relieve discomfort. If the arthritis has reached a point where supportive treatments are no long effective, the Sperling Medical Group offers a new noninvasive MRI-guided treatment called Focused Ultrasound for permanent pain relief. Visit Sperling Medical Group or contact us to set up a consultation.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you have health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.