Facet Joint Osteoarthritis | New research says it is caused by spinal ligament weakness

A Eureka moment by Japanese and American researchers linking spinal ligament weakness to degenerative spinal conditions

A team of researchers from Kyoto Chubu Medical Center and Rush University in Chicago wrote of the problems in treating lumbar stenosis and spondylolisthesis (the vertebrae has slipped forward out of place and is causing pain and pressure in your spine), in the medical journal Clinical Spine Surgery (June 2018):

They took 50 patients with lumbar spinal canal stenosis involving the L4/5 segment and divided them into 2 groups: with degenerative spondylolisthesis; 12 male, 14 female; average age 74 years old; and without degenerative spondylolisthesis; 15 male, 9 female; average age 70 years old.).

What were the doctors trying to do?

  • They wanted to clarify for other doctors the influence of facet joint osteoarthritis on the development and advancement of degenerative spondylolisthesis.
  • This they suggested would help their fellow doctors develop a treatment to prevent progression of degenerative spondylolisthesis in patients with lumbar spinal canal stenosis associated with degenerative spondylolisthesis.

What did the doctors find?

  • Progressive, worsening facet joint osteoarthritis were found in the degenerative spondylolisthesis.

What did this mean?

  • The doctors were able to pinpoint that degenerative spondylolisthesis, the unnatural movement and rotation of the vertebrae was caused by the degenerative condition of the facet joint.
  • The degenerative condition of the facet joint was also caused by unnatural movement and unnatural position of the vertebrae.
  • This unnatural, degenerative motion and the related pressure and pain it caused, was in fact caused by “ligament laxity” due to facet joint osteoarthritis that affects spinal segmental motion.

The conclusion? Treat the spinal ligaments before the situation gets worse. 

  • To quote the research: “We consider that a treatment method based on facet joint osteoarthritis would be useful for treating patients with degenerative spondylolisthesis.”(1)

How do you treat the spinal ligaments before the situation deteriorates to surgery?

June 2018, published in the Annual review of biomedical engineering,  listen to what researchers from University of California, Davis, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the University of California, Irvine suggest:

  • Along with the intervertebral disc, the facet joint (zygapophyseal joint) supports spinal motion and aids in spinal stability. Highly susceptible to early development of osteoarthritis, the facet is responsible for a significant amount of pain in the low-back, mid-back, and neck regions. Current noninvasive treatments cannot offer long-term pain relief, while invasive treatments (surgery) can relieve pain but fail to preserve joint functionality.(2)

What are non-invasive treatments for facet joint instability and pain?

The usual treatments you as a sufferer have likely been prescribed.

What is a facet joint injection?

There is often a great amount of confusion when it comes to facet joint injections as a non-surgical treatment option for spinal pain. Some think facet joint injection to be solely the use of steroids. In fact, some patients are routinely given the choice of facet joint injections or Radiofrequency neurotomy. This is where heat generated by radio waves is targeted to damage specific nerves and interfere with their ability to send pain signals to the brain.

In a comparison of these two “popular treatments” doctors found that Intra-articular steroid or radiofrequency denervation appear to be a managing option for chronic function-limiting low back pain of facet origin with favorable short- and midterm results in terms of pain relief and function improvement, but improvements were similar in both groups.(3) In other words, good for the short-term, perhaps mid-term. Not long-term.

However, in new research, doctors tested whether paraspinal block reduces pain scores compared to placebo in women with chronic pelvic pain refractory to drug therapy. Drugs did not work.

  • Paraspinal anesthetic block had a small effect on visual analog scale pain score immediately after the injections, but no sustained benefit after one week.(4) Here symptom suppression has failed.

A facet joint injection can be performed for one of two purposes.

  • One purpose is diagnostic in that it confirms or denies that the facet joint is the cause of back pain or neck pain.
  • The second purpose is therapeutic in treating the facet joints.

Diagnostically, a small amount of anesthetic is injected into the facet joint near the area of pain. If pain relief results then the facet joint is deemed the culprit of pain. Once the facet joint is pinpointed as the problem area, further injections of anesthetics and anti-inflammatory agents are injected to try to achieve more permanent pain relief.

A facet joint injection usually involves a patient lying on an X-ray table so that the physician can guide the needle placement using a fluoroscopic X-ray. A contrast dye is first injected so that the physician can confirm that the medication will go to the proper spot. Once proper placement is determined, the physician will inject the medication, usually an anesthetic and corticosteroid, into the facet joint.

Therapeutic injections into the ligaments supporting the facet joints

The facet joint or apophyseal joint helps to connect one vertebra to another vertebra. This joint connects the superior articular process of one vertebra with the inferior articular process of the other.  Capsular ligaments are part of the joint capsule that surrounds the facet joint.  The capsular ligaments join together with surrounding ligaments to provide stability to the joint. The capsular ligament is a very important structure and is key in the treatment of spinal pain and spinal instability, as these tiny ligaments hold the facet joint in place.  They also have nerve fibers that are associated with pain.

The facet joint and capsule have been demonstrated in various studies as the site of pain following injury to the spine.  Abnormal movement in the facet joint during such forceful conditions as that which occurs in whiplash, plays a role in production of pain. It is not unusual in these cases, for the capsular ligaments to exceed their physiologic range during these events, causing stretching and damage to these ligaments.

At Caring Medical, we have successfully treated the facet joints and the capsular ligaments with Prolotherapy.

Generally, an injury to the spine will cause damage to the facet joints and capsular ligaments at various levels of the spine. For this reason, Comprehensive Prolotherapy would be required in order to treat all injured areas. Prolotherapy to the facet joints and capsular ligaments will help the body to stimulate repair of the damaged ligaments. When the capsular ligaments are strengthened, the joint will become stable, and the pain will go away.

In one research study, doctors showed a 63% improvement in patients receiving Prolotherapy following diagnostic block injection for sacroiliac joint pain had improved at six months, compared to 33% who had intra-articular corticosteroid. Further,  sacroiliac prolotherapy showed good long-term outcomes at one year. (5)

At Caring Medical, we have successfully treated the facet joints and the capsular ligaments with PRP Prolotherapy.

In the medical journal Pain Physician, doctors in China wrote of “A New Technique for the Treatment of Lumbar Facet Joint Syndrome Using Intra-articular Injection with Autologous Platelet Rich Plasma.”

In this research, they looked at 19 patients with lumbar facet joint syndrome (8 men, 11 women between the ages of 38 and 62) who received lumbar facet joint injections with autologous PRP under x-ray fluoroscopic guidance.

At one week after treatment, low back pain reduced significantly

Patients were followed up immediately, at one week, one month, 2 months, and 3 months following treatment, and progress was measured with a series of standardized scoring systems.

  • At one week after treatment, low back pain reduced significantly
    • The outcomes were assessed as “good” or “excellent” for 9 patients (47.37%) immediately after treatment,
    • 14 patients (73.68%) at one week,
    • 15 patients (78.95%) at one month
    • 15 patients (78.95%) at 2 months,
    • and 15 patients (78.95%) at 3 months.

In the short-term period of 3 months, the new technique of lumbar facet joint injection with autologous PRP is effective and safe for patients with lumbar facet joint syndrome.(6)

If you want to discuss your specific case with our staff please contact us

1 Kitanaka S, Takatori R, Arai Y, Nagae M, Tonomura H, Mikami Y, Inoue N, Ogura T, Fujiwara H, Kubo T. Facet Joint Osteoarthritis Affects Spinal Segmental Motion in Degenerative Spondylolisthesis. Clinical spine surgery. 2018 Jun. [Google Scholar]

2 O’Leary SA, Paschos NK, Link JM, Klineberg EO, Hu JC, Athanasiou KA. Facet Joints of the Spine: Structure–Function Relationships, Problems and Treatments, and the Potential for Regeneration. Annual review of biomedical engineering. 2018 Mar 1(0). [Google Scholar]

3 Lakemeier S, Lind M, Schultz W, Fuchs-Winkelmann S, Timmesfeld N, Foelsch C, Peterlein CD. A comparison of intraarticular lumbar facet joint steroid injections and lumbar facet joint radiofrequency denervation in the treatment of low back pain: a randomized, controlled, double-blind trial. Anesth Analg. 2013 Jul;117(1):228-35. [Google Scholar]

4 da Rosa KF, Amantéa VA, dos Santos AC, Savaris RF. Efficacy of paraspinal anesthetic block in patients with chronic pelvic pain refractory to drug therapy: a randomized clinical trial. Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet. 2015 Mar;37(3):105-9. [Google Scholar]

5 Chakraverty R, Dias R. Audit of conservative management of chronic low back pain in a secondary care setting–part I: facet joint and sacroiliac joint interventions. Acupunct Med. 2004 Dec;22(4):207-13. [Google Scholar]

6. Wu J, Du Z, Lv Y, Zhang J, Xiong W, Wang R, Liu R, Zhang G, Liu Q. A new technique for the treatment of lumbar facet joint syndrome using intra-articular injection with autologous platelet rich plasma. Pain physician. 2016 Nov 1;19(8):617-25. [Google Scholar]

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