How to Treat Facet Joint Disease

What is Facet Joint Disease?

Facet joint disease is an inflammation of the joints along the spine. This inflammation can be extremely painful, limiting a patient’s quality of life. Fortunately, this condition can be treated in a number of ways that don’t involve the use of addictive painkillers.

What are Facet Joints?

Facets are located on both sides of every vertebra (bone) in the spine. The cartilage within them allows the bones to slide freely over one another. Facet joints are surrounded by a protective sleeve called a capsule, which is lubricated by joint fluid. “Facet joints do more than just hold the spine together; they allow your back to twist and enjoy a range of motion,” says Dr. Prasad Lakshminarasimhiah, pain management specialist at Physician Partners of America in Frisco, Texas. “When these joints degenerate due to aging or trauma, they can become inflamed and cause great pain.”

Symptoms of Facet Joint Disease

This condition goes by different names: facet syndrome, facet arthritis, facet hypertrophy, and spinal osteoarthritis. By any name, it can be excruciating and affect everyday life. It should be properly evaluated and treated.

Facet Joint Disease Symptoms

Facet joint disease is more commonly found in the areas of the spine where there is more movement. It usually occurs in the neck and lower back but can also affect the mid back. It is important to note that not everyone with facet joint disease experiences pain; they might not know that they even have it. Those whose symptoms fall on the mild end of the spectrum might experience some stiffness and discomfort.

More severe symptoms include major inflammation and painful swelling. If facets in the upper portion of the spine are affected, it can cause head, neck or shoulder pain. If facets in the mid to lower spine are impacted, it can cause radiating pain in the lower back, buttocks or legs. Left to progress, facet disease may lead to bone spurs, cysts or thickened ligaments as the body tries to protect the joints from the effects of inflammation.

Conservative treatment for facet disease

Conservative options might be enough to relieve the pain in people with mild facet disease symptoms. Many specialists will recommend a combination of rest, physical therapy, a home exercise program, and medication to reduce inflammation. 

People with moderate to severe facet disease, or whose symptoms have not responded to physical therapy, may need interventional treatment options. After such treatment, patients who engage in a regular home exercise program and follow the proper mechanics of lifting and bending are likely to experience longer pain relief.

Laser procedures to treat facet joint disease

“At Physician Partners of America, our treatment philosophy is to minimize body trauma for a faster recovery,” says Dr. Lakshminarasimhiah. “To achieve this, we use the most advanced minimally invasive procedures to help patients regain their quality of life as quickly as possible.”

One tool board-certified pain specialists may choose to use is the Holmium YAG laser. It treats pain-causing nerves with less disturbance to the surrounding muscle and tissue than the scalpels used in open surgery. Dr. Lakshminarasimhiah and other PPOA specialists start by making a 2-3 mm incision at the treatment site. Guided by live x-ray, they insert very narrow instruments into the treatment area. The laser is then threaded through the tube and used to ablate the nerve that is causing pain.

With this minimally invasive procedure, the patient will experience the least amount of tissue damage and enjoy a faster recovery. Most people simply walk out of the ambulatory surgery center and heal in a matter of days or weeks.

“The good news is that we can definitely treat facet joint disease without the use of prescription painkillers,” says Dr. Lakshminarasimhiah. “Finally, people can free themselves of back pain and opioid medication.”

What is the best treatment for facet disease?

Every patient is different, and symptoms can range from undetectable to crippling. If you are experiencing symptoms that interfere with your everyday life, get a full evaluation by the board-certified pain management specialists at Physician Partners of America.

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