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What Is a Zygapophyseal Joint?

Andrew Kirmayer
By
Updated: Feb 10, 2024

The spine is composed of a series of bones called vertebrae. Each bone is composed of a body as well as a structure called the superior articular process on its interior upper side. An inferior articular process is normally located on the bottom side of the bone; the connection between the top process of one vertebra and the articular one of the bone above is called the zygapophyseal joint. Also called the Z-joint, it normally connects one vertebra to another and guides the movement of the spinal bones. The zygapophyseal joint also protects the back bones from motions that could damage them.

Most often visible in a side view of the spinal column, the zygapophyseal joint is also called a facet joint. This term, however, more often applies to where there is cartilage lining various other small joints in the body. Another name given to the structure is the apophyseal joint. In the lumbar, or lower, spine, the zygapophyseal joint can protect the back from rotation, over-flexing, as well as shear forces. It also restricts flexing and enables rotation of the middle, or thoracic spine.

The functions of the Z-joint are sometimes affected by injuries, degeneration, and arthritis. It can also become dislocated or be fractured, while surgery can sometimes reduce the motion allowed by the joint. Degenerative changes to the zygapophyseal joint are most common with age, and typically occur because of normal wear and tear. Conditions such as osteoarthritis can cause pain, which is often felt in other parts of the body because these joints are deep in the spine and covered with spinal muscles. Pain in the thigh and buttocks is sometimes felt as a result of problems with the joint.

Medical equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) machines are often used to diagnose zygapophyseal joint inflammation and other problems. Pain is sometimes managed by steroid injections. Doctors also often advise someone with a Z-joint problem to improve his or her posture or participate in physical therapy.

Pain in the zygapophyseal joint can be misdiagnosed as a condition involving the spinal discs in between the verebrae. Back pain that is caused by arthritis of the Z-joint can occur if nerve roots become entrapped, as a result of structural changes after the condition sets in. Genetics, repeated strain, and muscle weakness can also affect the zygapophyseal joint. The resulting back pain is common in many people over 65 years old, while some individuals as young as 40 may experience the symptoms of joint degradation.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Andrew Kirmayer
By Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer, a freelance writer with his own online writing business, creates engaging content across various industries and disciplines. With a degree in Creative Writing, he is skilled at writing compelling articles, blogs, press releases, website content, web copy, and more, all with the goal of making the web a more informative and engaging place for all audiences.
Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Jul 10, 2012

@ysmina-- Oh sorry, I forgot to explain that. Facet disease (facet syndrome) is when the facet or zygapophyseal joints wear away and become inflamed and painful.

It's the same thing you have, except that mine is not because of an injury. Mine is due to degeneration. I have the beginnings of degenerative disc disease which is also wearing away my facet joints.

Meanwhile, I had a short conversation with my doctor and he said that if I don't respond to the treatments I mentioned earlier and continue to have pain, they can destroy the nerve endings attached to the joints. This way I won't feel the pain. He also said that many of his patients have had good results with massage and acupuncture. I'm relieved!

By ysmina — On Jul 09, 2012

@SarahGen-- Sorry, but what's facet disease? Is it the inflammation and pain of zygapophyseal joints?

If that's what you're referring to- then yes, proper rest, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle-relaxers are going to be the main treatment.

I've been suffering from inflammation of my zygapophyseal joints. It all started when I fell down the stairs at my home. During the fall, my back turned in a way that it shouldn't, damaging the joint and bone there. This caused a slight dislocation of the joint followed by inflammation and pain.

My joint is now relocated but I'm still treating the inflammation. I'm also going to physical therapy to not only re-strengthen the joint but also to learn right posture. The doctor said that even though my fall appears to be the main cause, the underlying cause is a weakening of the joints because of bad posture and wrong movements. So I'm trying to work on that. Physical therapy is doing wonders in my opinion. Every week, I feel a little bit better than the week before.

By SarahGen — On Jul 08, 2012

I have just been diagnosed with facet disease. I knew that I had a problem with my back, but I really wasn't expecting this diagnosis. What's worse is that I'm really into body building and this is definitely going to affect that.

My doctor told me that I don't have too many treatment options. The most important thing is physical therapy and he's also going to give me certain exercises that I will need to do to strengthen my joints. But aside from this, and pain management, apparently there is no other treatment.

Just wondering, does anyone here have facet disease or know someone who does? I would really like to read about what kind of treatment plan others are following for this condition and how much success they've had with it.

If there are other treatment options that I can take advantage of, I certainly want to find out. Not being able to get back weight lifting is going to be very disappointing otherwise.

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer, a freelance writer with his own online writing business, creates engaging content across various...
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