Cervical Facet Joint Pain

Facet joints are small joints that hold the bones of the vertebrae together. They work together with the intervertebral discs, or the cushions of fibrous tissue and gel found between the vertebrae, to stabilize the spine and make movement possible.


Those facet joints that are connected to the first seven vertebrae of the spine are called the cervical facet joints and are located in what we think of as the neck. These facet joints help bear the weight of the head on the body. Unfortunately, these joints can cause pain in cases where there has been an injury or simply because of age.


Causes of Cervical Facet Joint Pain


In most cases, cervical facet joint pain is the result of getting older. As we age, the intervertebral discs lose their liquid, making them smaller and not as effective as ‘shock absorbers’ for the vertebrae. This forces the vertebrae closer together and puts undue pressure on the facet joints.


Cervical facet joint pain can also appear after an injury, such as a whiplash accident. When the facet joints become damaged or inflamed, the nearby muscles become irritated as well and may radiate pain or go into spasm, reducing movement.


Symptoms of Cervical Facet Joint Pain


Symptoms of cervical facet joint pain are more than a simple pain in the neck. The pain may increase if the neck is held in a fixed position for a significant amount of time. Simple movements that extend the spine, as you do when looking up, may cause pain.


Turning your head or looking over your shoulder, as you do when reversing the car, may cause pain. Sometimes the pain will extend to the shoulder, down to the shoulder blade or up to the back of the head.


Diagnosis of Cervical Facet Joint Pain


In some cases, the pain will sort itself out with rest and light pain medication such as Ibuprofen or Paracetamol, but if the pain lasts for more than a week or gets worse with time, the best course of action is to make an appointment to see your doctor. He will be able to make a diagnosis with a simple physical examination and can confirm his diagnosis with a CT scan or MRI.


Treatment of Cervical Facet Joint Pain


The treatment of cervical facet joint pain is aimed at fighting the inflammation of the facet joints, so possible treatments for less severe cases may include conservative treatment such as physiotherapy, chiropractic or osteopathy. This kind of treatment can help improve the range of movement and posture.


Your doctor may also prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory or pain medication if the pain is thought to be short term (such as when it is caused by an injury). He may also suggest using a TENS machine, which sends soothing electrical pulses to the nerves and helps block the pain.


For more severe or chronic cases, more aggressive therapy can be used, such as corticosteroid injections near the joints, which help fight the inflammation and relieve pain.