9 Ways Lumbar Facet Arthritis Can Be Treated
As many as 80% of Americans will experience lumbar facet arthritis in their lifetime. For some, it’s a temporary event relieved by simple lifestyle changes or NSAIDs. For others, this low back pain is chronic, nagging and distracting. It interferes with daily life.
Are you suffering from lumbar pain? There are more promising treatment options than you may realize. Your doctor will help you understand which is best for you.
Let’s explore just some of the many options.
What Is Lumbar Facet Arthritis?
Your facet joints reside between the vertebrae (bones) in your back. Like other joints, facets help you move side to side and back to front and around within a normal range of motion.
The wear and tear of daily activities or an injury can cause these joints to deteriorate and become inflamed. Bone spurs can develop, furthering the problem.
This inflammation can become chronic, lasting more than 3 months. For some, it becomes a lifetime of pain without treatment.
This leads to debilitating back pain known as spinal osteoarthritis or lumbar facet arthritis.
Now let’s talk solutions starting with the least invasive and working up toward surgical procedures.
1. Lifestyle Changes
The least invasive — but often the most difficult treatment — requires you to make a conscious decision to change certain habits. These include:
- Improving your posture
- Regular low-impact exercise
- Stretches and/or beginner’s yoga
- Reducing damaging activities
- Eating more veggies, nuts, seeds and fish
- Taking work/driving breaks
Alternating heat and cold packs during an episode can also help.
Making several small but impactful changes can help your body heal itself. And it can improve the effectiveness of other treatments we’ll be discussing.
2. Home Exercise
Your doctor may put you on a home exercise program. You would learn a set of activities. These will help strengthen certain muscles, lubricate joints and reduce inflammation.
Even if you get plenty of exercise from hobbies, sports or work, these targeted activities are very effective in some people.
3. Physical Therapy
If a home exercise program is not alleviating the pain, your doctor may write you an order for physical therapy.
Physical therapists have undergone extensive training. They have tools and techniques at their disposal to further reduce the effects of lumbar facet arthritis.
They will work with a patient, “listening” to the patient’s body and evaluating it. They can then develop a more custom training program. This program will be performed during sessions with the therapist.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Your doctor may recommend over the counter painkillers called NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These include ibuprofen, commonly known as Advil and naproxen, commonly known as Aleve.
A doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants if you’re having spasms. Oral steroids are also an option.
As with any medications, long-term usage can have undesired side effects.
Some of the common side effects of NSAIDs include:
- Stomach upset & ulcer
- Liver/Kidney problems
- Ringing in the ears
- Hearing loss
- Uncontrolled bleeding
Because of this, your doctor may recommend limiting or alternating the use of various medications over the long-term.
5. Facet Joint Injections
Also called nerve blocks or facet blocks, these are injections of an anesthetic into the nerves that connect to the joint. These nerves send a pain signal to the brain. By blocking this signal, pain is reduced.
A person can then feel more comfortable as they work to strengthen muscles around the spine. Ideally, over time the injections would become less necessary.
6. Injected Steroids
Some doctors will also use injectable steroids. The results are often very short-lived. But in some patients, these can reduce swelling and inflammation. In turn, the pain is greatly reduced.
7. Facet Rhizotomy
If you’ve tried more conservative treatments, your doctor may recommend this surgical procedure. This may better relieve the symptoms of lumbar facet arthritis.
While under anesthetic, a surgeon will carefully and purposefully destroy certain nerves that lead to the facet joint. Once destroyed, nerves do not heal or re-generate.
The pain signals to the brain are, therefore, permanently disrupted.
First, the doctor will use a diagnostic tool to locate and target a nerve. Then a larger, hollow needle is inserted into the back. A slender probe can then be guided through the inside of the needle. A fluoroscope further directs the probe to a precise location.
Once the probe has arrived, it burns the nerve so that it can no longer transmit signals.
8. Radiofrequency Ablation
A temporary but effective short-term treatment is radiofrequency ablation. It involves the passing of a targeted electric current into the nerve that is connected to the facet joint. This pulse disrupts the signals to the brain.
A nerve treated in this way may remain disrupted for anywhere from 6 months to a couple years.
9. Posterior Lumbar Fusion
Lumbar facet arthritis, for the most part, is movement related. Each time to move, you irritate the joint that is already damaged.
As the name suggests, a lumbar fusion involves fusing your vertebrae together so that your back moves less. Less movement means less irritation and pain.
For this procedure, a doctor will graft small pieces of bone around your vertebrae. This bone acts as a permanent brace. Rods and screws are often placed around the graft because it takes time for a bone graft to fuse and heal.
Having your back fused may sound like a procedure that will leave you walking like Frankenstein’s Monster. But keep in mind that you have many vertebrae.
You will have some loss of range of motion after the procedure. How much depends on the level of fusion you receive. But you will retain most of your movement. And some movement may even become easier because the trouble area has been addressed.
Lumbar Facet Arthritis Treatment Options
These are your most common options for treating lumbar facet arthritis. When you see a doctor, they will evaluate your unique situation and may recommend other treatments.
Are you dealing with lumbar pain? Schedule an appointment. Find out what treatment options may be right for you.