Facet joint disorders are some of the most common of all the recurrent, disabling low back and neck problems, and can cause serious symptoms and disability for patients. However, facet joint problems rarely involve the spinal nerves.
Symptoms of Facet Joint Problems
Symptoms may include the following:
- Acute episodes of lumbar and cervical facet joint pain are typically intermittent, generally unpredictable, and occur a few times per month or per year.
- Most patients will have a persisting point tenderness overlying the inflamed facet joints and some degree of loss in the spinal muscle flexibility (called guarding).
- Typically, there will be more discomfort while leaning backward than while leaning forward.
- Low back pain from the facet joints often radiates down into the buttocks and down the back of the upper leg. The pain is rarely present in the front of the leg, or rarely radiates below the knee or into the foot, as pain from a disc herniation often does.
- Similarly, cervical facet joint problems may radiate pain locally or into the shoulders or upper back, and rarely radiate in the front or down an arm or into the fingers as a herniated disc might.
Recurrent painful episodes can be frequent and quite unpredictable in both timing and extent. Patients are often left with the notion that this is a psychosomatic problem, and it may even be implied that “it’s all in your head.”
In the lumbar case, standing may be somewhat limited but sitting and riding in a car is the worst. So-called “limited duty” (sitting) assignments for patients with low back pain are paradoxically bad. When at its height of pain and disability, the muscle spasm is so continual that it fatigues the muscles, which in turn, repeats the cycle.