Facet Syndrome

Facet Syndrome


Facet syndrome, also known as facet joint syndrome or facet joint arthritis, is a condition that affects the facet joints of the spine. The facet joints are small, paired joints located at the back of the spine, responsible for providing stability and facilitating movements between adjacent vertebrae.

Facet syndrome occurs when the cartilage within the facet joints degenerates or wears down, leading to inflammation, pain, and stiffness in the affected joints. The most commonly affected areas are the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. It is often associated with the natural aging process and can be exacerbated by injury, trauma, repetitive stress, poor posture, or mechanical stress on the spine.


The exact cause of facet syndrome is unclear, but several factors can contribute to its development. Here are some common causes and risk factors associated with facet syndrome –

  1. Age-related degeneration – The natural aging process significantly contributes to facet syndrome. Over time, the cartilage within the facet joints can degenerate, leading to friction and inflammation in the joints.
  2. Spinal osteoarthritis – Facet syndrome is often associated with osteoarthritis of the spine. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease characterized by the breakdown of cartilage, and it can affect the facet joints, leading to pain and stiffness.
  3. Trauma or injury – Acute injuries or trauma to the spine, such as whiplash, repetitive stress injuries, or heavy lifting, can damage the facet joints and increase the risk of facet syndrome.
  4. Poor posture and spinal alignment – Prolonged poor posture, such as slouching or sitting in an incorrect position, can put excessive stress on the facet joints, leading to degeneration over time.
  5. Obesity – Excess weight puts added strain on the facet joints, accelerating the degenerative process and increasing the likelihood of developing facet syndrome.
  6. Genetic factors – Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing facet syndrome or spinal conditions that affect the facet joints.
  7. Overuse or repetitive movements – Activities or occupations that involve repetitive or excessive bending, twisting, or lifting can increase the risk of facet syndrome.
  8. Spinal instability – Conditions that cause instability in the spine, such as spondylolisthesis (slippage of one vertebra over another) or spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), can place additional stress on the facet joints and contribute to facet syndrome.

These factors can increase the risk of developing facet syndrome, not everyone with these risk factors will necessarily develop the condition. Additionally, the presence of facet joint degeneration in imaging studies does not always correlate with the severity of symptoms experienced by an individual. Proper diagnosis and evaluation by a healthcare professional are essential to determine the underlying causes and develop an appropriate treatment plan.


The symptoms of facet syndrome can vary from person to person, and the severity of symptoms can range from mild to severe. Here are some common symptoms associated with facet syndrome –

  1. Localized pain – The most prominent symptom of facet syndrome is pain in the affected area of the spine. The pain is often described as a deep, aching sensation and is typically localized to the region where the affected facet joints are located. For example, if the lumbar facet joints are affected, the pain may be felt in the lower back.
  2. Pain in movement – The pain in facet syndrome is usually aggravated by certain movements or positions that put stress on the affected facet joints. Activities such as bending backward, twisting the spine, or prolonged standing or sitting can worsen the pain.
  3. Limited range of motion – Facet syndrome can restrict the normal range of motion of the spine. It may become difficult to bend forward, backward, or sideways, and there may be a sense of stiffness or tightness in the affected area.
  4. Muscle spasms – The muscles surrounding the affected facet joints may go into spasms as a protective response to limit movement and reduce pain. These muscle spasms can contribute to additional pain and discomfort.
  5. Radiating pain – In some cases, the pain from facet syndrome may radiate or spread to other areas of the body. For example, if the facet joints in the lumbar spine are affected, the pain may radiate into the buttocks, hips, or thighs.
  6. Tenderness to touch – The affected area of the spine may be tender to touch. Applying pressure or palpating the region around the affected facet joints can elicit pain.
  7. Pain relief with rest – Resting or adopting a specific posture that relieves pressure on the facet joints may provide temporary relief from pain. For example, lying down with the knees bent or using a reclining chair may alleviate symptoms.

These symptoms can overlap with other spinal conditions, and a proper evaluation by a healthcare professional is necessary for an accurate diagnosis. If you are experiencing persistent back or neck pain or any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is advisable to seek medical attention for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate management of the condition.

Diagnosis and Tests

The diagnosis of facet syndrome typically involves a combination of a thorough physical examination, evaluation of medical history, and diagnostic imaging tests. Here are the common diagnostic methods used to assess and diagnose facet syndrome –

1. Medical history and physical examination – Your healthcare provider will begin by asking you about your symptoms, their duration, and any factors that worsen or alleviate the pain. They will also inquire about your medical history, previous injuries, and any other relevant information. During the physical examination, the healthcare provider will assess your range of motion, test for tenderness in the affected area, and evaluate your posture and spinal alignment.

2. Diagnostic imaging – Imaging tests are often used to confirm the diagnosis of facet syndrome and rule out other possible causes of back or neck pain. These tests may include –

  • X-rays – X-rays can help visualize the bony structures of the spine and reveal any signs of degeneration, such as osteoarthritis or the presence of bone spurs. 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – An MRI provides detailed images of the soft tissues, including the facet joints, spinal discs, and surrounding structures. It can help to identify any abnormalities, such as inflammation, joint degeneration, or herniated discs.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan– A CT scan provides cross-sectional images of the spine and can offer a more detailed view of the bony structures, including the facet joints. 

3. Diagnostic injections – In some cases, diagnostic injections may be used to confirm the involvement of facet joints in the pain. A local anesthetic, such as lidocaine or bupivacaine, may be injected into the facet joint or the nerves supplying the facet joint. If the injection is providing temporary pain relief, it suggests that the facet joint is likely contributing to your pain.

The diagnosis of facet syndrome can be challenging, as the symptoms may overlap with other spinal conditions. Therefore, an accurate diagnosis requires careful evaluation by a healthcare professional, such as a spine specialist or orthopedic surgeon, who will consider the clinical presentation, medical history, physical examination findings, and imaging results to make an informed diagnosis.

Once a diagnosis of facet syndrome is confirmed, appropriate treatment options can be discussed to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.


The treatment of facet syndrome aims to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, improve functionality, and enhance the overall quality of life. The specific treatment options may vary depending on the severity of symptoms, individual circumstances, and the patient’s response to conservative measures. Here are some common treatment approaches for facet syndrome –

1. Conservative treatments

  • Rest and activity modification – Avoiding activities that exacerbate pain and adopting positions or postures that relieve stress on the facet joints can help reduce symptoms.
  • Physical therapy – A physical therapist can provide exercises and stretches to improve flexibility, strengthen the supporting muscles, and promote proper posture and body mechanics. Manual therapy techniques, such as joint mobilization or manipulation, may also be utilized.
  • Medications – Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help reduce pain and inflammation. In some cases, stronger prescription medications, muscle relaxants, or analgesics may be prescribed for short-term use.
  • Heat or cold therapy – Applying heat or cold packs to the affected area can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Heat therapy is often used to relax muscles, while cold therapy can help numb the area and reduce swelling.

2. Injections

  • Facet joint injections – These injections involve the administration of a local anesthetic and a corticosteroid medication directly into the affected facet joint. This can help provide temporary pain relief and reduce inflammation.
  • Medial branch nerve blocks – The nerves that supply the facet joints, called medial branches, can be targeted with local anesthetics to temporarily block the pain signals. If the pain is significantly reduced after the nerve block, it may indicate that the facet joints are the source of the pain.
  • Radiofrequency ablation – This minimally invasive procedure uses heat generated by radio waves to selectively damage the nerves supplying the facet joints. By interrupting the pain signals, radiofrequency ablation can provide longer-lasting pain relief.

3. Medications

  • Oral medications – In addition to over-the-counter NSAIDs, other medications, such as muscle relaxants, neuropathic pain medications (e.g – gabapentin), or opioid analgesics, may be prescribed in certain cases. However, opioids are generally reserved for severe pain and used cautiously due to the risk of dependence and side effects. 
  • Topical medications – Creams, gels, or patches containing analgesics or anti-inflammatory agents can be applied topically to the affected area to provide localized pain relief.

4. Assistive devices – The use of supportive devices, such as braces or lumbar supports, can help stabilize the spine and reduce stress on the facet joints during activities or periods of increased pain.

5. Lifestyle modifications – Making certain lifestyle changes can help manage facet syndrome symptoms. These may include maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good posture, engaging in regular low-impact exercises (e.g. – swimming, walking), and avoiding activities that strain the spine.

6. Surgical interventions – In cases where conservative measures fail to provide adequate relief, and symptoms are severe and significantly impact daily functioning, surgery may be considered. Surgical options for facet syndrome are generally reserved for specific circumstances, such as severe spinal instability or significant nerve compression.

The choice of treatment will depend on the individual patient’s condition and should be determined by proper consultation with a healthcare professional, such as a spine specialist or orthopedic surgeon, who can provide personalized recommendations based on the severity of symptoms, overall health, and individual needs.


The outlook for facet syndrome can vary depending on several factors, including the severity of symptoms, individual response to treatment, and the presence of any underlying conditions. While facet syndrome is a chronic condition that cannot be completely cured, it is often manageable with appropriate treatment and lifestyle modifications.

With early diagnosis and implementation of conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments, many individuals with facet syndrome experience a reduction in pain, improved mobility, and a better quality of life. These conservative measures aim to relieve symptoms, reduce inflammation, and promote spinal stability. Conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medication, and installments of many individuals.

In cases, where conservative treatments do not provide sufficient relief, interventions such as injections or radiofrequency ablation can offer longer-lasting pain management. Surgical interventions for facet syndrome are relatively rare and typically reserved for severe cases involving significant spinal instability or nerve compression.