Facet joint osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that affects the facet joints of the spine. It can make everyday movements feel extremely painful, making work, family time or outdoor activities like walking or golf extremely difficult. While arthritis is a broad term that can be applied to more than 100 different joint diseases, osteoarthritis is by far the most common form of arthritis.
Osteoarthritis of the facet joints goes by several other terms, including facet joint arthrosis and facet joint arthropathy. Often, osteoarthritis in the spine is confused with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or degenerative disc disease. In identifying symptoms and seeking treatment, it can be helpful to learn the differences between these conditions.
Osteoarthritis — Also called “wear-and-tear arthritis,” osteoarthritis deals with facet joint degeneration — more specifically, the decay of cartilage on facet joints. Cartilage is responsible for smooth joint movement, so when it wears away, pain and stiffness can result.
Spinal rheumatoid arthritis — This condition is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune cells attack the fluid that lubricates the facet joints. When under attack, the joints become inflamed and cause pain.
Degenerative disc disease — This is a progressive breakdown of the spinal discs located between vertebrae. When these discs become thin and compressed, the space between facet joints is reduced, which can limit proper joint function.
While the causes of many types of arthritis have not been fully discovered, we do know that osteoarthritis involves factors like age, genetics, body mass index and gender. Common symptoms of facet joint osteoarthritis include throbbing and tenderness, limited range of motion and abnormal stiffness of the joints.
If you think you have symptoms related to facet joint osteoarthritis, visit your primary care physician. He or she can complete a full physical exam, go over symptoms and review your medical history. More advanced diagnostic imagery like an MRI may be required for diagnosis in many cases. Many patients can find meaningful relief from conservative treatments like physical therapy or over-the-counter pain medication recommended by a doctor.