It’s fairly common for a radiology report received by a physician, who sent a patient to Capitol Imaging Services for an exam due to back pain or discomfort, to have the report include the phrase “facet arthropathy.”

What is that?

The facet joints connect the vertebral bodies to one another, and like the hip and the knee, they can also become arthritic and painful, and can be a source of back pain. The facet joints are located at the back of the spine and counterbalance the intervertebral discs. They help keep the normal alignment of the spinal vertebrae and limit motion. The pain and discomfort that is caused by degeneration and arthritis of this part of the spine is called facet arthropathy, which simply means a disease or abnormality of the facet joints.

Most people with facet arthropathy will complain of lower back pain that becomes worse when twisting, standing, or bending backward. Usually, the pain is confined to a particular point in the spine, and unlike the pain and numbness often caused by a slipped disc or sciatica, it doesn’t usually radiate into the buttocks or down the legs.

As the facet joints become arthritic, they often develop bone spurs—tiny outgrowths or projections of bone—that can decrease the amount of space available for the nerve roots as they exit the spinal canal. This can contribute to the development of spinal stenosis, another condition that may cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the buttocks and legs.

In fact, people who have facet arthropathy often have other conditions that may be contributing to their symptoms. Aside from spinal stenosis, it’s possible that arthritis in other parts of your spine or degenerative disc disease—a natural part of the aging process where our intervertebral discs lose flexibility, elasticity, and shock absorbing characteristics—could be contributing to your symptoms.

To find out if facet arthropathy is causing your back pain, your doctor may order the following imaging studies:

  • A CT scan (CAT scan) or MRI, which shows evidence of facet joint degeneration, even in most people who only have mild to moderate pain
  • A bone scan (a nuclear medicine study), which shows areas of active inflammation in the spine

Another way to help confirm a diagnosis is to have your painful facet joints injected with a mixture of local anesthetic and an anti-inflammatory steroid. If the injection relieves your back pain, it’s likely that facet arthropathy is contributing to your symptoms.

CT and MRI scans are performed throughout the Capitol Imaging Services affiliate network. Click here to send us a secure email requesting appointment assistance. One of our experienced imaging associates will contact you to arrange your visit.

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