How long does it take to recover from Facet Joint Pain?

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Written By Dr. Marcus Yu Bin Pai

MD, PhD. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Physician from São Paulo - Brazil. Pain Fellowship in University of São Paulo.

In this blog post, we will explore the causes and treatment options for low back pain related to facet joints.

We will discuss the anatomy of the spine, the role of rehabilitation exercises and medications, and the importance of identifying red flags in patients experiencing low back pain.

What are Facet Joints, and Why Can They Be Painful?

Facet joints are paired joints found on each side of every vertebra in the spine. They allow for the bending, extension, twisting, and rotation of the spine.

Like any joint, facet joints can experience wear and tear over time, leading to arthritis and pain.

The Anatomy of Facet Joints

Facet joints are designed to have some space between them, allowing for synovial fluid to provide lubrication and facilitate smooth movement. The joints themselves are not like a shoulder socket, but more like sliding plates that enable a limited range of motion.

Two factors come into play when considering facet joint pain: the interior of the joint and the exterior (joint capsule). When muscles surrounding the joint compress it, the plates grind against each other, causing irritation and pain. This compression can also cause one side of the joint to open too much, overstretching the joint capsule and leading to further discomfort.

Pain Patterns Associated with Facet Joints

Pain from facet joints typically occurs on both sides of the spine, in the area of the affected joints. However, this pain can also radiate down into the buttocks and legs.

When facet joints are compressed and subluxated (misaligned), several problems can arise. First, the misalignment can cause bruising and pain within the joint. Second, the compressed side of the joint can become “locked” due to the mechanical forces exerted by the surrounding muscles, resulting in constant pain signals being sent to the brain.

Additionally, the overstretched side of the joint can cause the connective tissue (ligaments) to become irritated and potentially damaged, further exacerbating the pain.

The Pain-Inflammation Cycle

As the brain receives constant pain signals from the compressed and overstretched facet joints, it responds by further tightening the muscles in a protective reflex. This tightening increases compression and joint capsule stretching, leading to increased inflammation.

In turn, inflammation releases chemicals that heighten sensitivity to pain, setting off a vicious cycle of pain, inflammation, and muscle tightness.

Differential DiagnosisDetailed Explanation
Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)This condition is caused by the gradual wear and tear of the discs located between the vertebrae, resulting in decreased disc flexibility and the development of painful facet joints.
Herniated DiscA herniated disc occurs when the cushioning material of the intervertebral discs protrudes outward, placing pressure on the nearby facet joints.
Spinal StenosisSpinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress nerves and cause pain in the facet joints.
SpondylolisthesisSpondylolisthesis is a condition where one of the vertebrae slips out of its normal position, causing the facet joints to become misaligned and painful.
OsteoarthritisOsteoarthritis is a joint disorder caused by the breakdown of cartilage in the joints, including the facet joints, resulting in inflammation and pain.
InfectionIn rare cases, the facet joints may become infected, leading to inflammation and pain.
TraumaTrauma, such as a car accident, can cause the facet joints to become damaged and inflamed, leading to pain.

Benefits of Rehabilitation, Exercise, and Core Strength for Facet Joint Pain

Intervertebral foramina in cervical spine

Physical therapy is often the first line of treatment for facet joint pain. The goal is to strengthen the core muscles of the abdomen and back, providing support and reducing pressure on the facet joints. This, in turn, can help alleviate pain.

It is crucial to avoid practices that could worsen facet joint pain, such as aggressive massages or manipulations. Instead, focus on addressing the overall mechanism surrounding the facet joint pain to restore function and reduce discomfort. Gentle, targeted therapies that address muscle tightness and inflammation can be more effective in managing facet joint pain.

Common Medications for Facet Joint Pain

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, are often used to reduce pain and inflammation associated with facet joint pain. However, these medications can have side effects and risks, so they should not be used for extended periods.

Medial Branch Block and Radiofrequency Ablation Procedures

Medial branch nerves, located near the facet joints, transmit pain signals from the joints to the spine and brain. To diagnose facet joint pain, these nerves can be temporarily blocked using a local anesthetic like lidocaine. If pain relief is insufficient, a radiofrequency ablation procedure can be performed.

This involves using a special needle with a heated tip to cauterize the medial branch nerve, preventing pain signals from reaching the brain.

Red Flags for Patients with Facet Joint Pain

Patients experiencing low back pain should be vigilant for red flags that may indicate the need to consult their doctor or visit the emergency room. These include progressive weakness, numbness, or tingling, which can signal a neurological condition. Other red flags include fever or rash, which may be signs of infection.

Red FlagDescription
History of CancerPrevious diagnosis of cancer in the patient
Unexplained Weight LossSignificant unintended weight loss in the patient
History of TraumaPrevious injury to the spine or any other body part
FeverTemperature of the patient is elevated
Night PainPain that is worse at night than during the day
Unexplained FatigueFatigue that is not explained by other reasons
Pain that Radiates Down LimbsPain that is felt in other parts of the body away from the spine
Age Over 50Older patients may be more prone to certain conditions
ImmunosuppressionWeakened immune system due to certain conditions or medications


Facet joint pain is a complex condition resulting from the interplay between muscles, joints, and connective tissues. By understanding its causes and mechanics, patients and healthcare providers can develop more effective treatment plans to manage pain and improve overall quality of life. To learn more about facet joint pain, visit [author’s website] and explore the available resources.

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MD, PhD. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Physician from São Paulo - Brazil. Pain Fellowship in University of São Paulo.

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