What is Facet Joint Arthritis?

Sandra Koehler

Facet joint arthritis, also known as facet arthopathy, is a condition in which the bones of the spine begin to show signs of wear and tear. Located in between and behind neighboring bones, the facet joints link the spinal bones together and provide a secure bond. Osteoarthritis, the common arthritic condition affecting facet joints, occurs when the flexible connecting tissue or cartilage surrounding the joint begins to deteriorate.

Facet joint arthritis may result from the normal aging process.
Facet joint arthritis may result from the normal aging process.

Each facet joint consists of cartilage in between the bones of the spine from the neck to the low back. When this cartilage becomes damaged movement in that area of the spine becomes strained. This added friction can result in pain or stiffness in the back or neck area, and can cause worsening damage over time. The degenerative form of arthritis affecting the facet joints can also result in a reduction of spinal flexibility, triggering a loss of normal spine mobility.

Facet joint arthritis may result from injury.
Facet joint arthritis may result from injury.

Problems with the spine such as those seen with facet joint arthritis can result from the normal aging process, which weakens the stability of bone connections. Arthritis of the facets can also be triggered by an injury. Once there is damage to the bones, joints, ligaments or discs associated with the spine, that damage creates a stress point which increases the likelihood that some form of deterioration will occur in the area of injury.

Bed rest may be recommended to people who are suffering with facet joint arthritis.
Bed rest may be recommended to people who are suffering with facet joint arthritis.

The damage produced by arthritis also affects the protective, fluid-filled casing around the joint. This fluid is designed to minimize resistance as the bones move. Morning stiffness from facet joint arthritis occurs because there is a lack of lubrication. Fluid is replenished through movement. If the body continues to be stationary, backaches and stiffness can linger throughout the day.

Facet joint arthritis occurs when the bones of the spine show signs of wear and tear.
Facet joint arthritis occurs when the bones of the spine show signs of wear and tear.

The best treatment for this condition is to maintain as much normal movement as possible. Bed rest is sometimes recommended when symptoms are exacerbated. Since immobility can aggravate pain, it should only be used for one to two days.

Stretching the back and neck areas can help relieve some of the pain and related symptoms of facet joint arthritis. This is also an effective way to maximize the flexibility of the spine. A gentle strengthening program, such as a water routine, may also aid in protecting the spine against further injury and damage. Symptoms, however, may become more pronounced as the day progresses and as normal activities or exercise routines intensify the strain placed upon the spine and facet joints.

An illustration of a healthy spine and one with spinal osteoarthritis, also called facet joint arthritis.
An illustration of a healthy spine and one with spinal osteoarthritis, also called facet joint arthritis.

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