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Describing what facet joint pain feels like can be a challenge.

Words Can’t Describe Facet Joint Pain

The whole notion of pain, and how every individual experiences pain, is up for debate. We don’t know how another person experiences pain … Miriam Toews

If you have back pain, did you ever try to describe it to someone? Doctors can assess the amount of pain using a scale from no pain to worst possible pain. However, describing the quality of pain can be elusive. Words come to mind like dull, piercing, throbbing, burning, sharp, etc. There are probably hundreds of words that could be used, but even when a doctor seems to “get it,” it won’t make the pain go away.

One source of back pain is worn out facet joint cartilage. The facet joints exist alone the whole spinal column where the bones of an upper vertebra (section of backbone) meet those of the one below. The bony projections are covered with cartilage where they meet. Cartilage cushions the joints and facilitates how well they glide against each other, making bending or twisting smooth and painless. Any number of factors can create thinning and wearing away of the cartilage. If this creates bone-on-bone contact, the bones develop spurs. This can be one source of pain. Or, the joints can enlarge and become inflamed, discomfort might be worsened by an ordinary act such as standing, moving, or even sitting.

The two regions of the spine most often affected by facet join deterioration are the vertebrae in the neck (cervical spine) or the lower back (lumbar spine).If the pain is felt at or near the affected joints, it is said to be localized. Alternatively, if the loss of cartilage leads to compression on a nerve, pain can radiate along nerve lines:

  • From the cervical facet joints, pain can radiate into the shoulders or upper back
  • From the lumbar joints, pain can radiate downward into the buttocks and back of the upper leg

Radiating nerve pain has been likened a bee sting or bad sunburn. It can come on suddenly, like a stabbing sensation, or it can feel like an electric sensation ranging from buzzing or tingling to a fierce current. Each person will experience facet joint pain differently, but learning how to describe it to your doctor can help him/her locate the actual source and determine the best treatment plan. To help your doctor avoid a trial-and-error approach to treatment, one useful suggestion is to keep a pain journal. For example, note the day, time of day, how long the pain lingers, and then describe the quality of the pain as well as you can. This information will help your doctor narrow down therapeutic options for you.

Early facet joint pain can often be relieved by over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. Other interventions such as posture strengthening, physical therapy, massage, applications of heat or cold, or visiting a chiropractor can actually prevent pain. However, if pain worsens or becomes more frequent, a complete medical evaluation will be necessary to pinpoint the source. For persistent or acute pain that does not respond to other treatments, the Sperling Medical Group offers a safe, noninvasive treatment called MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS). Clinical studies have shown that this approach can bring lasting relief from pain. For more information, contact the Sperling Medical Group.

Facet Pain