Most people have never heard of the facet joint. But without this joint between your vertebrae, your spine would lack the structure and flexibility to stand, bend, and twist.
Facet joint injuries can take many different forms. But these injuries can cause debilitating pain. They can limit your range of movement. And they can lead to osteoarthritis and spinal degeneration. As a result, you may face a lifetime of disabilities after suffering an injury to a facet joint.
The Structure of Your Spine
Your spine must perform two seemingly-contradictory functions. It must support the entire weight of your upper body and transfer that weight to your hips so you can stand and walk. This function requires a strong, stiff frame.
But your back must also bend and twist so you can move your head and body. If your head and upper limbs were fixed, you would have to turn your entire body to look or reach sideways. Thus, this function requires a flexible frame.
Your spine was constructed to accomplish both tasks. Instead of a single bone, your spine includes 24 small, connected vertebrae. When these bones stack on each other, they form a strong, stiff column. But your muscles can also move the vertebrae relative to each other, allowing them to bend and twist.
The joints between the vertebrae that allow this movement are called facet joints. Each vertebra has a barrel-shaped body, two bony knobs, and several thin protrusions called processes. The facet joints connect the knobs of adjacent vertebrae.
The facet joints include three structures to protect the joined vertebrae from wearing too quickly. First, a layer of synovial fluid sits between the knobs. The fluid lubricates the joint so the bones do not grind on each other.
Second, each knob has a surface lining formed from cartilage. Cartilage is a tough, smooth connective tissue that allows the joint to move without wearing and tearing the bones underneath.
Third, a facet joint capsule surrounds the joint. This capsule is made of tough connective tissues. It seals the joint to prevent the synovial fluid from escaping. It also holds the joint together so the knobs do not dislocate.
Facet Joint Injury Causes
Facet joint injuries can happen in a few ways, including:
Trauma can damage the facet joints. Hyperextension of the spine during a car accident can pull and tear joint capsules. When you slip and fall in a workplace accident, the impact of your spine on the ground can fracture the knob. And compression of the spine after an impact can tear the cartilage inside the facet joint.
When your back experiences repetitive stress, the facet joints can wear out and become inflamed. If the synovial fluid and cartilage break down, the bones might grind on each other and cause osteoarthritis.
Overuse injuries are common in workers whose jobs involve repetitive motions. People who lift or walk continuously during their shifts can experience overuse injuries to the facet joints.
Sometimes, you can injure your facet joint secondary to another back injury. Specifically, when your discs get compressed, the spacing between your vertebrae changes. As a result, a lower vertebra pulls on the vertebra above it. This pulling can stress the facet joint capsule, causing it to hyperextend and tear.
Disc compression can happen in many types of accidents. Whiplash from car accidents is notorious for causing discs to collapse and either herniate or bulge. Thus, in addition to the problems caused by a deformed disc, you could also face symptoms of a facet joint injury.
Types of Facet Joint Injury
Facet joint injuries can happen in a few ways, including:
Torn Facet Joint Capsule
Stress on the facet joint can pull the joint capsule. Even though the joint capsule is formed from tough connective tissues, it can fray and tear under enough stress. When the joint capsule tears, you face two problems.
First, without the joint capsule, your facet joint becomes loose, and your vertebrae can dislocate. As a result, the vertebra can press on nerves and nerve roots, causing symptoms such as:
- Back pain
- Pain that radiates into the shoulders, arms, hips, or legs
- Spine inflammation
- Numbness or tingling in the limbs
- Muscle weakness
Second, when the joint capsule ruptures, the synovial membrane can tear and leak synovial fluid. One of the most reliable predictors of facet joint pain is leaking synovial fluid. Even if the cartilage has not yet broken down, the loss of the synovial layer will cause pain and other symptoms.
When the cartilage inside the facet joint breaks down or gets torn, you have bone-on-bone grinding. You will experience pain and inflammation in the joint. Your facet joint will also continue to deteriorate as the bones wear down.
Symptoms of torn cartilage in the facet joint include:
- Pain, particularly during and after activity
- Swelling and localized fever near the spine
- Clicking or hitching in the spine
- Limited range of back movement
Cartilage heals very slowly. As a result, you should expect to experience symptoms from torn cartilage in your facet joint for many years or even the remainder of your life.
One of the most dangerous injuries you can suffer is a broken back. The spine protects the spinal cord. But when you fracture your back, the bone fragments can dislocate and sever the spinal cord.
The facet joints control the movement of your vertebrae. When you fracture the knob forming a facet joint, the vertebrae can slip out of place and sever your spinal cord. A spinal cord injury will result in at least some permanent paralysis and loss of sensation below the level of the injury.
Contact a Minnesota Personal Injury lawyer
You can seek compensation for a facet joint injury that resulted from someone else’s intentional or negligent actions. This holds even if your facet joint injury was an indirect product of your accident. Thus, you can pursue an injury claim for a facet joint injured by a compressed disc.
A facet joint injury can cause pain. Worse yet, it can cause your spine to degenerate, causing symptoms for the rest of your life. Contact one of our experienced attorneys at Hall Law Personal Injury Attorneys at (800) 292-1979 for a free consultation with a Minnesota personal injury lawyer to discuss your facet joint injury and the compensation you can seek.