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Facet disease overview

Facet disease is not as scary as it sounds. It generally refers to osteoarthritis of the facet joints which link the vertebrae in the spine. While this can be a painful condition that makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks — whether that means gardening or golf — the good news is there are treatment options.

There are many spine specialists in the Scottsdale area and choosing the best one to diagnose and treat your condition should involve careful research. If you are dealing with a case of facet disease or suspect it might be the cause of your symptoms, learning about this condition can help you find treatment that returns you to a full and active life.

Facet disease development

The spine is made out of cylindrical bones called vertebrae that are linked by facet joints and cushioned by discs. The spine must be able to support the full weight of the torso and upper body, allow for basic movement and protect the central nervous system as it travels from the brain to the rest of the body. This makes the spine especially vulnerable to age-related degeneration like joint inflammation.

The facet joints arch off the back of each vertebra and exist in pairs on the top and bottom. These joints are coated in cartilage and joint fluid so that they can move smoothly against each other as the spine bends and flexes. With age, this coating can become brittle and start to wear down. The increased friction from bone-on-bone contact can cause irritation and swelling of the exposed facet joints.

Facet disease symptoms

Facet disease usually involves local pain and stiffness of the joints in the affected region of the spine. A common condition that can occur is the development of bone spurs. These growths are not painful by themselves and are just the body’s attempt to relieve the joint of friction. They can narrow the spinal canal or a nerve root exit, causing pain and symptoms that can be felt in other areas of the body. The location of these symptoms largely varies according to the location of the bone spur. Here are the three main regions of the spine and their associated symptoms:

  • Cervical — This is the upper spine, running from the base of the skull to the top of the ribcage. If a nerve becomes compressed here, pain, tingling, numbness and impaired movement can be experienced in the neck, shoulders, arms and hands.
  • Thoracic — This is the middle spine, which is attached to the ribcage. This area is less prone to facet disease because it is more stable than the upper and lower spine. If a bone spur does develop here, radiating symptoms can travel around the ribcage and to the chest and abdomen.
  • Lumbar — This is the very bottom of the spine and highly at risk for developing facet disease because of the combination of pressure and movement that happens here. Shooting pain, muscle weakness, tingling and numbness can be felt in the hips, buttocks, legs and feet. If a bone spur compresses the sciatic nerve, these symptoms are usually referred to as sciatica.

Diagnosis and treatment

Upon experiencing symptoms that do not subside after a few days, many patients will seek out their primary care doctor for diagnosis and a treatment plan to get relief from symptoms. Facet disease is usually diagnosed through a physical exam and imagery like an X-ray or an MRI. Sometimes facet joint block injections can be used to both relieve symptoms and help pinpoint the exact location of the condition.

Most physicians will prescribe nonsurgical treatments to manage symptoms first and many patients are able to find successful pain relief and a return to normal activity. Common conservative treatment recommendations for facet disease include:

  • Rest
  • Massage
  • Physical therapy
  • Nerve blocks
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Lifestyle changes like posture correction and weight loss

While there are surgical options to treat facet disease they are usually seen as a last resort option by doctors and patients alike due to the invasive nature of traditional open spine surgery. If you have been told you are a candidate for surgery but are anxious about the large incisions, overnight hospitalization and long painful recovery involved, reach out to Laser Spine Institute.

We can treat the symptoms of facet disease with minimally invasive spine surgery that is an alternative to traditional open back procedures. Our highly skilled surgeons can access the facet joints with smaller incisions that spare supporting muscles and lead to a faster recovery period^ for our patients. Along with minimally invasive decompression surgeries, we can also perform a facet thermal ablation where the surgeon is able to deaden nerves around the facet joints using a laser. To learn more about our state-of-the-art outpatient facility in Scottsdale and to get your no-cost MRI review* to determine if you are a candidate for one of our procedures, contact us today.