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What Is Lumbosacral Facet Syndrome?/Lumbosacral facet syndrome refers to a clinical condition consisting of various patient-reported symptoms, including mechanical back pain, radicular symptoms, and neurogenic claudication, secondary to either acute or subacute trauma, or secondary to the degenerative cascade affecting the posterior spinal elements. The facet joint degenerates secondary to repetitive overuse and everyday activities that can eventually lead to microinstability and synovial facet cysts that generate and compress the surrounding nerve roots.[rx]
Causes of Lumbosacral Facet Syndrome
Lumbosacral facet syndrome can occur secondary to repetitive overuse and microtrauma, spinal strains and torsional forces, poor body mechanics, obesity, and intervertebral disk degeneration over the years. This notion is supported by the strong association between the incidence of facet arthropathy and increasing age. [rx]
In some instances, an inciting event such as trauma or whiplash injury can be identified, although trauma patients tend to develop cervical facet arthropathy more commonly than lumbosacral facet syndrome. The role of trauma remains controversial in the literature. The irritation of the degenerative zygapophyseal joint over time leads to inflammation, which is perceived as low back pain.
Symptoms of Lumbosacral Facet Syndrome
Depending on the number of facets affected, the severity of the condition, and the possible involvement of a nearby nerve root, one or more of the following signs and symptoms may occur:
- Localized pain – A dull ache is typically present in the lower back.
- Referred pain – The pain may be referred to as the buttocks, hips, thighs, or knees, rarely extending below the knee. Pain may also be referred to as the abdomen and/or pelvis. This type of pain is usually caused by facet arthritis and is experienced as a distinct discomfort, typically characterized by a dull ache.
- Radiating pain – If a spinal nerve is irritated or compressed at the facet joint (such as from a facet bone spur), a sharp, shooting pain (sciatica) may radiate into the buttock, thigh, leg, and/or foot. Muscle weakness and fatigue may also occur in the affected leg.
- Tenderness on palpation – The pain may become more pronounced when the area over the affected facet in the lower back is gently pressed.
- Effect of posture and activity – The pain is usually worse in the morning, after long periods of inactivity, after heavy exercise, and/or while rotating or bending the spine backward. Prolonged sitting, such as driving a car, may also worsen the pain. The pain may be relieved while bending forward.
- Stiffness – If the lumbar facet pain is due to arthritic conditions, stiffness may be present in the joint, typically felt more in the mornings or after a period of long rest, and is usually relieved after resuming physical activity.
- Crepitus – Arthritic changes in the facets may cause a feeling of grinding or grating in the joints upon movement.
Diagnosis of Lumbosacral Facet Syndrome
Patient history – The doctor reviews the patient’s main complaints and asks about the onset of pain; duration and types of signs and symptoms; concomitant medical conditions; and drug and/or surgical history.
Medical exam – The doctor may gently palpate (feel) the lower back to check for tender spots and muscle reflex activity in the legs to rule out possible nerve dysfunction. A medical exam may include some combination of the following tests:
- Visual inspection – of the overall posture and skin overlying the affected area
- Hands-on inspection – by palpating for tender areas and muscle spasm
- Range of motion tests – to check mobility and alignment of the involved joints
- Segmental examination – to check each spinal segment for proper motion
- Neurological examination – including tests of muscle strength, skin sensation, and reflexes.
If a clinical diagnosis of lumbar facet joint pain is suspected, first-line treatment options, such as medication, physical therapy, and spinal manipulation, may be advised. In general, diagnostic imaging and/or injection tests are not needed to treat and help resolve an episode of pain. If the first-line treatments are unsuccessful, then imaging and possibly injections may be recommended.
Treatment of Lumbosacral Facet Syndrome
Treatment for lumbosacral facet syndrome usually includes a multidisciplinary approach. If the diagnosis is uncertain, consideration is given to performing diagnostic medial branch blocks.
Several at-home and medical treatments are available to alleviate the pain that originates in the lower back facet joints. Treatments that may be performed at home to relieve lumbar facet pain include:
- Applying heat therapy – Heat therapy can help relax the muscles and open up blood vessels to allow blood flow and oxygen to reach the painful tissues, providing nourishment. Using a heat patch or hot water bag in the morning after waking may help ease the morning pain and stiffness. Heat therapy may also be used intermittently throughout the day to keep the tissues relaxed.
- Using a cold pack – Cold therapy may be used when the pain is acute or during a pain flare-up, such as after strenuous physical activity. A cold pack constricts the blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the region and numbing the pain.
- Supporting the lumbar curve – It is important to maintain the natural spinal alignment by using correct sitting, standing, and/or lying down posture. A good posture helps keep stresses off the facet joints and foster a better healing environment.
- Avoiding activities that worsen the pain – In general, activities that include spinal twisting, repeated bending and extending, and sitting for long periods of time must be avoided. Bending the spine backward may cause more strain on the affected joint(s) and must be avoided to prevent further damage.
- Staying active – While avoiding certain activities is recommended, it is also necessary to stay active in moderation and avoid complete bed rest, which may decondition the lumbar tissues and increase the pain.
- Engaging in low-impact exercises – Following an exercise routine that involves simple, low-impact exercises, such as walking, may be beneficial when done within tolerable limits for short distances. Regular short walks can help avoid pain and stiffness from prolonged inactivity and also improve strength and flexibility in the lower back.
- Using a supportive brace – While bracing is not common in treating benign facet pain, a brace may occasionally be used for non-threatening facet instability, such as a subluxation, to help limit spinal motion and promote healing.
Nonoperative management includes oral medications such as NSAIDs, acetaminophen, and oral steroids during acute flares. Additionally, weight loss and physical therapy have demonstrated successful outcomes. [rx]
- Muscle relaxants – and some antidepressants may be prescribed for some types of chronic back pain.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – are typically tried first. NSAIDs have been shown to be more effective than placebo, and are usually more effective than paracetamol (acetaminophen).
- In severe back pain not relieved by NSAIDs – or acetaminophen, opioids may be used. However, long-term use of opioids has not been proven to be effective at treating back pain. Opioids have not always been shown to be better than placebo for chronic back pain when the risks and benefits are considered.
- Skeletal muscle relaxers – may also be used. Their short term use has been shown to be effective in the relief of acute back pain. However, the evidence of this effect has been disputed, and these medications do have negative side-effects.
- In people with nerve root pain and acute radiculopathy – there is evidence that a single dose of steroids, such as dexamethasone, may provide pain relief.
- Epidural corticosteroid injection – (ESI) is a procedure in which steroid medications are injected into the epidural space. The steroid medications reduce inflammation and thus decrease pain and improve function. ESI has long been used to both diagnose and treat back pain, although recent studies have shown a lack of efficacy in treating low back pain.
- Carisoprodol – This muscle relaxant was investigated in two high-quality studies on acute low back pain. The first study compared carisoprodol with diazepam [rx]. Carisoprodol was superior in performance on all the outcome parameters measured. A comparison of carisoprodol with cyclobenzaprine‐hydrochloride in the second study revealed no statistically significant differences between the two treatments [rx].
- Chlorzoxazone – This muscle relaxant was compared with tizanidine in one high-quality study in a very small sample of patients with degenerative lumbar disc disease [rx]. No differences were found between the treatments.
- Cyclobenzaprine‐hydrochloride – Cyclobenzaprine was compared with diazepam in a low-quality trial on chronic low back pain, but no significant differences between the treatments were identified [rx]. There was also no significant difference between cyclobenzaprine and carisoprodol in one high-quality study on acute low back pain [rx].
- Diazepam – In comparison with carisoprodol, diazepam was found to be inferior in performance on muscle spasm, global efficacy and functional status in a high-quality trial on acute low back pain [rx]. In a very small high-quality trial (30 people) comparing diazepam with tizanidine, there were no differences in pain, functional status and muscle spasm after seven days [rx].
- Tizanidine – This muscle relaxant was compared with chlorzoxazone and diazepam in two very small high quality [rx]. Both trials did not find any differences in pain, functional status and muscle spasm after 7 days.
- Pridinol mesylate – One low-quality trial showed no differences between this muscle relaxant and thiocolchicoside on pain relief and global efficacy.
Indications for surgical intervention include:
- Symptoms refractory to nonoperative modalities (e.g. 3 to 6-month trial)
Large associated synovial facet cyst correlating with clinical exam and presentation
- Laminectomy with decompression is the classic first-line treatment for symptomatic, intraspinal synovial cysts
- The literature also supports the utilization of facetectomy, decompression, and instrumented fusion (as opposed to a simple “lami decompression”)
Minimally invasive techniques
Physical therapy – Almost all treatment programs for facet joint disorders involve some type of structured physical therapy and exercise routine, which is formulated by a medical professional with training in musculoskeletal and spinal pain. Physical therapy typically includes a combination of manual therapy, low impact aerobic exercise, strengthening, and stretching. Over time, this treatment is useful in improving and maintaining the stability of the lower back and fostering a healing environment for the tissues. When exercises are performed as directed, long-term pain relief may be experienced.
TENS therapy – TENS therapy involves activating sensory nerve fibers through a tolerable frequency of the electric current. The electric current is delivered through electrodes placed on the skin and attached to a TENS unit. TENS therapy may reduce facet joint pain by the production of endorphins—a hormone secreted by the body that reduces pain. This treatment is usually safe and can be done at home. However, there is limited scientific evidence supporting this treatment. A TENS unit can be purchased online or at a drug store.
Injection therapy – Treatment injections contain numbing medications that work on the nerves around the facet joint, reducing their ability to carry pain signals to the brain. Injections also contain steroids, which decrease the inflammatory reactions in the facet joint, reducing the pain.
Common injection techniques that help target facet joint pain, include:
- Facet joint injections – These injections treat pain stemming from a specific facet joint. The injection is typically delivered into the capsule that surrounds the facet.
- Medial branch blocks – These nerve block injections deposit medication around the medial branches (pain transmitting branches) of spinal nerves.
- Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) – This injection treatment relieves pain by inducing a heat lesion on the pain-transmitting nerve near the facet. The lesion prevents the nerve from sending pain signals to the brain. An RFA is usually considered when an accurate diagnosis of facet joint pain is made through the diagnostic double block injection technique.
- Shockwave therapy – helps to break down the scar tissue that can build up around the facet joints, allowing increased blood flow into the area, boosting overall healing and help to improve movement in stiff areas. As movement tends to improve hydration of the joints, shockwave therapy helps the production of joint fluid called synovial fluid, aiming to reduce the wear and tear between the cartilage surfaces of the facet joints.
- Spinal remodeling and rehabilitative exercises – can also help by correcting the posture; an incorrect posture can put pressure on certain areas of the spine, which can potentially worsen the condition.
Spinal injections are almost always performed under the guidance of fluoroscopy (live x-ray) or ultrasound. A contrast dye is injected into the tissues to make sure the needle is accurately placed at the suspected site of pain. Medical imaging helps prevent injury and further complications that may be caused by injecting into adjacent structures, such as blood vessels.
Therapeutic injections using fluoroscopic guidance may not be given during pregnancy or when an infection or bleeding disorder is present. A small risk of bleeding, infection, allergic reaction, or permanent nerve or spinal cord damage.
A combination of one or more treatments is usually tried to control the symptoms of facet joint disorders. For the vast majority of patients, a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, physical therapy and exercise, and posture correction will help control the pain. If the pain and/or neurologic signs and symptoms, such as numbness or weakness, continue to progress, a surgical consultation may be recommended.