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Facet Dysfunction

Your facet joints (also known as zygapohysial joints) are the joints which connect the bones in your back (vertebrae) to one another and are found on both sides of your back - they have cartilage that line the joint, (this allows the bones to glide smoothly over one another) and a capsule surrounding the joint. 

Common Signs & Symptoms

  • A feeling of stiffness or being locked up in your spine
  • Usually begins gradually but may start suddenly
  • Pain or stiffness on activities which involve arching backwards
  • Pain can be in the centre of your back or to one side
  • Your muscles feel tight and in spasm
  • Pain may be in your back or spread to your buttocks/ down to your knee

Description

Your facet joints (also known as zygapohysial joints) are the joints which connect the bones in your back (vertebrae) to one another and are found on both sides of your back - they have cartilage that line the joint, (this allows the bones to glide smoothly over one another) and a capsule surrounding the joint. 

Imagine your back is like a bike chain - when you move, each part of the chain should glide and move so you can arch back, twist and bend forward. Sometimes, if the chain is stiff or unoiled, some parts of the chain don't move easily when you move. 

Facet joints suffer from two main problems: 

a) Sprain - this usually happens suddenly, usually because you have moved your joint further than it is willing to give.....or 

b) Stiffness - this usually develops gradually from natural degeneration (Osteoarthritis), trauma, a build-up of stresses over time or and disease. This build-up of stiffness is often the cause of a facet joint sprain

Facet joints have a rich supply of nerves and can be very painful when they sprain - this is extremely common and many believe it is responsible for almost 50% of long standing back pain. In most people, stiff joints in your back will be accompanied by stiff, tender tight muscles which can look like railroad tracks down both sides of your spine. These tight muscles will make your back joints even tighter so it's important to loosen the soft tissues surrounding your vertebrae as well as improving the mobility of your facet joints to solve your back problem. 

Advice & Treatment

The keys to treating facet joint sprain and stiffness is to improve the flexibility or movement of your entire bike chain (vertebrae) and soften your back muscles. Because stiffness in your middle back can cause problems in your lower back and the other way around, you need to loosen up the joints and muscles in both your middle and lower back to properly solve your problem. Your treatment for both will be very similar but if you’ve sprained your back, just stop doing activities which are painful for a few days to give your joint time to heal.

First Aid - Massage, heat and stretching will really loosen off your joints. This helps to reduce your pain and removes the grip that your muscles have on your joints to get your back moving better again.

Exercises
To soften your back muscles - self-massage with a tennis ball. Just press the ball between your back and the wall and roll it up and down the muscles on the side of your spine until you find tender areas or knots– these muscles are usually very tight, so pressing and massaging them with the ball will help.

Improve your flexibility
Trunk Twist - sit on a chair and twist your trunk around as far as you can in one direction without pain then the other, making sure you thighs and pelvis face forward. Once your strain has settled (a few days), just increase the stretch and hold of your twist

Other treatments:
- Manual treatment by a therapist to loosen off the tight joints helps your back to move more evenly
- Acupuncture can help to lessen muscle spasm and pain in the joint
- Specific exercises to improve the muscle control and movement of your joint and strength of the postural and core muscles

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