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What is Facet Arthropathy?

By Shelby Miller
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Facet arthropathy is the name for disease of the facet joints in the spine. Although arthropathy can refer to a number of conditions causing disease at a joint, including arthritis, arthropathy that is specific to the facet joints is typically caused by degeneration and arthritis. Characterized by localized pain at the afflicted vertebral segment, facet arthropathy can also create joint stiffness and difficulty in performing certain movements, such as spinal rotation, or twisting, and spinal extension, or bending backward at the waist. This condition may also be accompanied by the development of bone spurs, small outgrowths of the articulating surfaces of the bones at the joint.

Between each vertebra in the spinal column is a joint known as a facet, zygapophyseal, or Z-joint. Unlike the joints formed between the stacked bodies of the vertebrae where the intervertebral disks are found, facet joints are formed by the overlapping articular processes, the paired bony structures projecting prong-like from the back of each vertebra. A type of synovial, or movable, joint known as an arthrodial joint, the facet joint features two adjacent flat bony surfaces that slide past each other marginally during movements like trunk flexion, or forward bending, and spinal rotation. These bony surfaces are found where the superior articular process of one vertebra slides against the inferior articular process of the vertebra above it, causing the two adjacent vertebrae to interlock.

Facet arthropathy occurs when the joint structures, which include the ligaments surrounding the joint, the membrane-enclosed synovial capsule, the lubricating synovial fluid, and the cushioning joint cartilage within, begin to degenerate. This can be brought on by age, a disease like osteoarthritis, a prior injury, or a condition like obesity that wears on the joint. Often the joint space compresses and the cartilage begins to wear away. If facet arthropathy progresses to a point where the friction on the adjoining bony surfaces increases, bone spurs may develop in response to increase the surface area of said bony surfaces.

This condition is characterized by pain that is specific to the joint involved. This means the pain does not radiate as does pain from many other spinal ailments. It commonly afflicts the lumbar vertebrae in the low back, as these joints bear the heaviest load relative to the thoracic and cervical vertebrae. Also, as it tends to be degenerative, facet arthropathy may worsen with time. Symptoms may be treated through exercise, stretching, the administration of anti-inflammatory medicine, and chiropractic treatment.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1001965 — On Aug 05, 2019

@anon334213 - Wow, I've felt like the only person who couldn't get relief by going to bed at night. The time when you think that you will be getting rest is, in fact, the most painful part of my "day." I sleep for a handful of hours, maybe four, out of pure exhaustion, but end up waking up in pain and am unable to get comfortable unless I get out of bed. I'm sure it's hard to understand when you are not "us," but it's almost impossible to relax.

I wish you all the best and as many pain-free hours as possible. Good luck.

By anon334213 — On May 10, 2013

I have arthropathy arthritis in my facet joints in the lower left lumbar and it is pure agony to point I dread of going to bed at night. I was told I got it 10 years before I should get it. I am due to get an injection in a week's time, then go on to see a specialist in six weeks. It isn't something I wanted, but I now have and need to learn what I can about it all. I am walking with a limp, and feeling like I cannot do the simplest things is very upsetting. Sorry-- just having a rant.

By Ana1234 — On May 05, 2013

@browncoat - That's not really taking into account the huge amount of things that can affect bones. It's easy to tell someone to eat well, but what does that actually mean in this case? There are plenty of things which seem like they should be healthy, but can actually end up leaching calcium from your bones.

I've also heard that high amounts of pollution can end up harming your bones after a long exposure (something that people in cities can hardly avoid).

I hardly know anyone who hasn't had some kind of back problem, including arthritis symptoms and many of them aren't old enough (in my mind) to be getting that. I don't think it's because they are eating an unhealthy diet, I think it's just the way the modern world works. We all put way too much stress on our bodies.

By browncoat — On May 04, 2013

@pleonasm - It is a complex structure and there are plenty of things that can go wrong with it, but they don't in the large majority of people. All the muscles and ligiments named in the article are there so that the spine will be cushioned and will move in the right way.

It's only when something unusual happens, like a very poor diet, or a disease or something like that that people end up with conditions like osteoarthritis and end up with facet hypertrophy or other problems.

As long as you eat well, exercise frequently, but not too roughly and try not to strain your back you should generally be fine.

By pleonasm — On May 03, 2013

I never realized how very complicated the spine is before. I guess I always just looked at the vertebrae that you sometimes see in museums and thought they were a bit like Lego blocks and just stacked on top of each other, so there wasn't really all that much that could go wrong.

But it sounds like there's quite a lot that can go wrong. Cervical facet arthropathy doesn't even seem unlikely to happen, with those tiny little bits having to move around each other all the time, it seems like they are basically just waiting to break.

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