The Facet Joint
Your vertebrae are connected together through your facet joints. There are four facet joints for every vertebrae. The only vertebrae that does not possess them are your two highest vertebrae. Each vertebrae has four in total. Two connecting the vertebrae above (superior facets) and two below (inferior facets). They are both aligned in pairs and in a symmetrical arrangement.
It is these joints that allow the spine to bend, flex and twist. This gives your back flexibility and the ability to withstand pressure at various angles. Without the support of these very important joints, your back would not be able to function properly.
In between each vertebrae and facet joint, nerves exit from the spinal cord. These nerves travel to neighboring areas of the body to assist them to function. Healthy facet joints and vertebral discs provide the height and disc
space necessary to prevent any impinging of these nerves. As disc height or facet joint wear worsens, there is pressure on these nerves, thereby affecting nerve function downstream. This causes symptoms of pain or tingling down the sides of the legs or even loss of sensation. Motor function is also compromised.
Each joint possesses a joint capsule. It is made up of a connective tissue which covers each joint completely. This fibrous tissue is what holds each joint together. This prevents the joint from separation and provides the stability needed during all movements of the spine.
Inside each joint are cartilage, a tissue pad, menisci (discs), synovial fluid and a nerve supply. The cartilage serves to prevent wear and tear to the bone. The tissue pad helps to cushion and protect the cartilage. The discs are what slide together when the joint connects. The synovial fluid keeps the joint and discs lubricated to minimize wear and tear. The capsule has a rich nerve supply. Pain from the facet joint is felt from these nerves if they become irritated.
The facet joint articulates such that as the spine bends or twists, the joint can be closed whenever pressure is placed on it, or opened as the joint widens. During flexing of the spine, the joint can glide 5 to 8 mm.
The components of the joint capsule can and do wear with time. The menisci (discs) eventually wear causing nerve sensitivity and facet joint pain. This can be felt as a dull ache in the back. Recommended treatments to relieve this condition vary but usually involve correction of your posture. This provides protection from further wear. Facet joint pain also worsens as the invertebral discs themselves wear. This causes them to lose disc height putting added pressure upon the facet joint.
Disc wear due to aging is natural and expected. The chances of developing facet joint pain is common, especially with the lumbar vertebrae. The lumbar discs are generally the first discs (from the bottom up) to wear and lose height. This occurs as early as age 30 for some and with virtually everyone in their 60’s and above. Because of this, the majority of seniors have some form of facet joint osteoarthritis.
Tips to help reduce or prevent facet joint pain
Optimal disc height is key to facet joint health. This is because the height is what help to reduce the pressure that the facet joint sustains as you bend, lean or twist your upper body .
It is important to use extreme care when you bend, lean or twist since the discs will initial absorb the pressure. Too much excess pressure can injury these discs and increase their rate of wear. This will lead to an increased rate of loss of disc height. A loss of height is what increases your pressure on your facet joints and cause facet joint wear and therefore pain.
By using careful methods on how to lift or bend, along with proper hydration (by drinking enough water daily), you can help to minimize some of the aging process that you will experience from your facet joints.
Some methods involve:
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