Facet Joint Syndrome Causes & Symptoms

Facet Joint Syndrome Overview Facet Joint Syndrome Causes & Symptoms Facet Joint Syndrome Diagnosis & Treatments

What are the Causes of Facet Joint Syndrome?

Facet joint syndrome can occur anywhere in the spine. It develops in the small joints located between each vertebra called facet joints in your neck and low back. These joints are in constant motion, providing the spine with both the stability and flexibility needed to walk, run, sit, bend and twist. The joint surfaces are lined with cartilage allowing them to glide smoothly over each other. The cartilage inside the facet joint can become worn and inflamed, which can trigger pain signals in nearby nerve endings. This pain in the joints can be experienced in your neck, shoulders if resulting from the cervical spine, and felt in the low back, buttocks, and legs if originating in your lumbar spine.  Over time as we age, the cartilage gradually wears away, and in many cases, growths called “bone spurs” can develop. The constant wear and tear between the joints lead to inflammation, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, and pain of arthritis.

When a facet joint is damaged through normal deterioration, injury, or repetitive trauma, it may cause long-lasting or permanent disability. The most common causes of facet joint syndrome include:

  • Trauma: Whiplash and other types of trauma can contribute to this condition. The facet joint surface and cartilage that helps it function can become overloaded or degenerative over time. This can cause pain and inflammation in the facet joints. 


  • Degenerative Changes:  Degeneration (wear and tear of the spine) is the most common cause of facet joint syndrome leading to pain in the thoracic, cervical and lumbar spine. This can cause abnormal stress and strain on the spine and facet joints. The thoracic spine is less commonly affected when compared to the cervical and lumbar spine regions.  Because the thoracic spine is more rigid than the lumbar and cervical areas it is less likely to develop facet joint disease.  


  • Age-related Wear and Tear: The most common cause and progression of this condition appear to be aging. This is due to the normal physical demands and stress of our physical work, play, and life, causing wear and tear on the joints. Overuse of our low back and neck playing sports or heavy labor demands can be a defining contributor to facet joint-related pain.


  • Genetics: Experts believe that there may be a genetic predisposition to facet joint disease. A family history of facet joint disease may lead to a higher risk of developing it.


  • Other Factors: Working a job or having a hobby that requires repetitive motion, such as bending over and twisting to lift things repeatedly, might increase the risk of this disease. Being overweight is also considered a contributing factor.  Also, to lesser degree arthritis, gout and some infections can contribute to facet joint syndrome
  • Excessive weight
  • Overuse due to sports or heavy labor
  • Presence of diseases such as gout, different types of arthritis, or infections
  • Damage may stem from injuries or trauma, including whiplash, excessive lifting of heavy weight, or a fall.

What Are The Symptoms Of Facet Joint Syndrome?

Neck, shoulder and low back and buttock pain are more commonly caused by facet joint disease.  There are many painful symptoms that can be linked to the facets joints of your spine.  The following symptoms are associated with facet joint syndrome:

  • Pain that is often worse in the beginning and end of the day or with a change in weather
  • Lower back pain and spasms that radiate into the buttocks, pelvic area, or upper thighs
  • Neck pain that radiates into the shoulders
  • Headaches at the base of the skull
  • Pain in the lower back from standing long periods
  • Riding or sitting in the car for a long period can flare up facets
  • Increased pain with extended standing, sweeping/mopping, or washing dishes

If you are suffering from facet joint syndrome or low back pain, and it is impacting your daily routine, work, or general quality of life, we can help you.  At the International Spine Institute, our surgeon Dr. Marco Rodriguez, routinely treats patients suffering from facet joint pain.  With proper diagnosis and conservative treatment, including physical therapy, many patients get better without surgical intervention. However, when sciatica does not resolve with conservative care, Dr. Rodriguez has had great success in treating this painful condition with least invasive spine surgery. To see if you are a candidate for a least invasive spine surgery, fill out our pain evaluation form, and submit your most recent MRI. Our staff will call you and gladly help you through the process of getting a Free MRI Review.

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