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Facet syndrome overview

Facet syndrome is a term for degenerative arthritis in the facet joints linking the vertebrae in the spine. This is usually related to the natural aging process and the wearing away of cartilage and joint fluid in these joints. Symptoms occur when the exposed bones of facet joints grind against each other and become irritated. This causes local pain and stiffness and the resulting discomfort makes everyday tasks, even just going for a walk, difficult.

If you are looking for relief from facet syndrome pain, you are not alone. Finding pain relief and a return to a high quality of life is possible and there are many spine doctors and specialists in the Scottsdale area able to assist with treatment. Learning more about the condition affecting you can be a great way to find the right one and get back to the people and activities you love.

Facet syndrome causes and contributing factors

The main cause of facet syndrome is the natural aging process. As we get older, our bodies have less fluid in the bloodstream and the volume of circulation decreases. For the facet joints, this makes the protective lining of cartilage and joint fluid brittle and prone to deterioration.

While aging is unavoidable, there are other contributors that can speed up development of conditions like facet syndrome. Being overweight can put increased pressure on the spinal joints while smoking can disrupt circulation and cause the joints to dry out quicker than normal. Repetitive motions from work or sports, as well as traumatic injury, can both increase the rate of wear on the facet joints. Avoiding or correcting these factors can help you delay the onset of potential symptoms.

Here are some of the best ways to slow down the onset of facet syndrome:

  • Eat a nutritious diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plenty of protein. This can help overall health as well as manage weight.
  • Exercise regularly with a mix of stretching, strengthening and cardiovascular workouts. This can strengthen supporting muscles, improve blood flow and also help with weight control.
  • Quit smoking and using tobacco as this inhibits blood flow to the facet joints.
  • Practice good posture and proper lifting techniques to reduce stress on the joints.

It is always recommended to discuss diet, exercise and smoking cessation plans with your primary doctor, especially if you are suffering from neck or back pain.

Common symptoms

Joint stiffness and inflammation are the most commonly described symptoms given by most patients as symptoms of facet syndrome. Pain can occur if the swollen joints irritate local medial branch nerves and the joints themselves may also lock up.

Another effect of facet syndrome is that the bone-on-bone grinding of exposed joints can cause the development of bone spurs. These growths are the body’s natural attempt to stabilize the joints and are not painful unless they compress onto a nerve root or even the spinal cord itself.

A compressed, or pinched nerve, can cause traveling symptoms to the extremities of the upper and lower body depending on the location of the bone spur. For example, a pinched nerve in the upper spine affects the neck, shoulders and arms, while a pinched nerve in the lower back will have radiating symptoms in the hips, buttocks, legs and feet. The symptoms themselves can be similar throughout the body and include:

  • A burning or electrical pain
  • A pins-and-needles sensation
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness

Diagnosing and treating facet syndrome

If you suspect your symptoms may be related to a degenerative spine condition like facet syndrome, make an appointment with your primary care physician. They should be able to diagnose your condition with standard practices like a review of your medical history, physical evaluation and taking an X-ray or MRI.

Conservative treatment options like rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy help many patients manage the symptoms of facet syndrome enough to resume normal activity. Surgery is usually considered when weeks or months go by without bringing an acceptable level of relief. The goal of traditional open back surgery is to decompress or in some cases deaden any affected nerves but there are risks and difficulties that can come with it. This includes overnight hospitalization followed by a long and often painful recovery period.

The minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute’s outpatient center in Scottsdale is a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open spine procedures. Our procedures, including minimally invasive decompression and facet thermal ablation, offer dramatically shorter recovery periods^ and a quicker return to regular activity in comparison to traditional open neck or back surgery. Our caring staff takes a patient-centered approach to treatment that has resulted in a 96 satisfaction rate for our patients. To learn more, and to see if you may be a candidate, contact us today for a no-cost MRI review.*