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Thoracic Facet Joint Arthritis

What are the Thoracic Facet Joints?

Our Facet Joints are the joints located on the back of our spine opposite the disc, which is located in the front of the spine between the bodies of the vertebrae. The facet joints are made up by bone (articular processes) from the vertebrae next to each other. Each vertebra contributes one “arm” (articular process) to the joint.

The facet joint itself has cartilage like many other joints in the body.

Each joint is surrounded by a tough capsule which strengthens the joint.

What function do Thoracic Facet Joints have?

The facet joints move like windshield wipers when looking at them from the side. Flexion (forward motion) and extension (backward motion) are the primary motion of the facet joints. They also prevent the spine from slipping sideways in the horizontal plane (shearing).

What causes Thoracic Facet Joint Degeneration?

Facet joint degeneration is a common problem and is expected to some degree as our spine ages. A contributing factor to this is the thinning of the disc as we age. The loss of the height of the disc will place more weight onto the facet joints, which begin to show signs of stress. Ordinarily, the facet joints carry 20% of the body’s weight. However with loss if the disc’s height and function, up to 50% of the body’s weight may have to be carried by these joints. Over time, these joints will lose their cartilage and the joint space narrows. Eventually, the joins enlarge as the two bones which make up the joint (articular processes) begin to make contact. As these articular processes rub against each other, they form new bone, resulting in spurring and enlargement of the joint. In addition, facet joint cysts can form.

What spine levels are most commonly affected by Thoracic Facet Joint Degeneration?

Facet joint degeneration is most commonly present in the same spinal segments most affected by degenerative disc disease, namely T8/9 through T12/L1.

What are the common symptoms of Thoracic Facet Joint Degeneration?

Patients with facet pain will often suffer from pain on the side of the spine (paraspinal).

Facet related spine pain is often worse when the spine is bent backwards. This is called “facet loading” as more weight is distributed to the facet joint and away from the disc. Contrary to that, patients with disc related pain typically feel worse when bending forward. Facet pain is also often located in a smaller more defined area, whereas disc related pain can spread more. Here are some of the symptoms:

  1. Mid-back pain
  2. Mid-back stiffness
  3. Muscle spasms
  4. Pain radiating to the shoulders and abdomen
  5. Worsening pain when looking up

How is Thoracic Facet Joint Degeneration diagnosed?

Spine specialists use information from the patient history, physical examination and special spinal tests to make this diagnosis:

  1. History

Patients often complain of pain following periods of rest once they resume an activity. Typically patients do not have a history of a specific mid-back injury. Patients often feel the symptoms from facet pain come on slowly over time. Spine specialists will try to divide symptoms of disc disease from facet disease while collecting the patient’s history of mid-back pain.

      2. Physical Exam

On the exam, the pain is usually well localized and has a common pattern to it. The patient is frequently asked to bend backwards and sideways. Pain in that position points to the facet joint. Here are some examination points:

  1. Palpation (touch and pressure) of the spine
  2. Range of motion (mobility) testing
  3. Flexion and extension maneuvers (forward and backward bending)
  4. Facet Loading Maneuver
  5. Sensation testing
  6. Strength (motor) testing
  7. Reflex testing

      3. Imaging

a. X-Rays

X-Rays can show facet disease if the joint is enlarged and the joint space narrowed. Some facet joints can appear relatively normal on an X-Ray and yet be the source of the patient’s spine pain.

b. MRI Scans

MRI technology is best used for softer structures rather than bone anatomy. However, MRI images can show facet joints quite well. It can also be useful to evaluate the disc at the same time to see if more than one possible disease process is present. Bone spurs and cysts of the facet joint can be seen.

c. CT-Scan

CT technology can show facet joints with the most detail. However, in the case of severe facet spurs, the impact of these spurs on the spinal cord or spinal nerves cannot be easily seen. The high dose of radiation of CT scans versus no radiation with an MRI often makes the physician chose a MRI over a CT scan for the purposes of evaluating facet joints.

d. Nuclear Bone Scans

Bone scans are excellent at showing severe inflammation of the facet joints. However this study is only useful to evaluate bone. It cannot show the other structures of the spine such as discs and spinal nerves.

e. Diagnostic Thoracic Facet Injection

For diagnostic reasons, sometimes the facet joint is anesthetized with a local anesthetic and the patient’s response to the injected evaluated. This can be done very soon after the injection while the anesthetic is still active.

The injection is done with the help of an X-Ray machine to see the joints.

f.Thoracic Medial Branch Block

A medial branch block is an injection done with local anesthetics to block the nerves traveling to the facet joint. The patient is then evaluated to see if the pain has improved or is eliminated.

How is Thoracic Facet Joint Degeneration treated?

For the chronic pain from Thoracic Facet Degeneration, non-surgical and surgical interventions are available. Here are some of them:

  1. Non-Surgical

A. Alternative Health Care

Alternative Health care options can often complement conventional medical care. Massage Therapy, Acupuncture, Meditation exercises and Herbal Remedies can all help with the pain from this condition. Massage Therapy techniques can help with the muscle component from thoracic facet joint disease.

B. Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic spine manipulation can help with the symptoms from thoracic facet joint disease. Misalignment of the spine can be a significant contributor to pain from this condition.

C. Spine Exercises

Maintaining good muscle tone of the back muscles can help with the symptoms from this condition.

D. Physical Therapy (PT)

PT may focus on improving posture, exercising spinal muscles, and providing core strength amongst others. Ultrasound and muscle stimulation techniques can help with painful mid-back spasms.

E. Self Help Devices

Back Support Mattresses, Spine Pillows, and Inversion Tables are just some examples of Self Help Devices which can help this condition.

F. Medications

Here are some common groups of medications which can be used to relieve pain from this condition:

  1. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS)
  2. Muscle relaxants
  3. Pain Killers

G. Injections

Here are some injection options for this condition:

  1. Thoracic Facet Joint Injections

Facet injections both for diagnosis and treatment are often quite useful.

      2. Thoracic Medical Branch Block

These injections are typically done to verify that the pain is indeed stemming from the Facet Joints.

      3. Thoracic Facet Joint Radiofrequency Rhizotomy

For longer term relief, Radiofrequency Rhizotomies can be offered. These are minimally invasive procedures with short recovery times.

      2. Surgical Care

Treating pain from facet joint degeneration with surgery is uncommon, and reserved for patients who have failed non-surgical care and are having severe symptoms. These patients will often suffer from a combination of issues, some related to degenerative disc disease, and some to the facet joint degeneration. Also, spinal stenosis caused by the enlargement and bone spurring of the facet joint can be a reason for surgery.

Here are some possible surgical treatments:

  1. Thoracic Fusion with Instrumentation
  2. Thoracic Laminectomy Decompression