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Facet Joint: What Is It, and Why Is It So Important?

By Dr. Molly Casey

Facet Joint

A joint is where two or more bones meet and allow movement. There are 360 joints in the adult human body. There are the ones you typically think of, such as your shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles. There are also ones that you probably don’t think about on first blush, such as between each bone of the wrist, each bone of the fingers, and between the kneecap and the thigh bone/shin bone.

Also overlooked are the joints between the vertebrae of the spine, which are called facet joints. All joints can go through a process of degeneration if they are stressed improperly, used in ways they should not be used, or undergo injury or trauma of some sort. Degeneration causes more problems and symptoms in and of itself. You can have degeneration of the facet joint and may not even be aware, it will inhibit the overall health and function of your body and life.

Facet Joint Anatomy

The spine bones are called vertebrae. They are moveable and connect to the bone above and below. The facet joints are on the back of the bone and are what connect the bones above and below. There are two facet joints on each vertebrae, in the back on the right and in the back on the left. These joints contain cartilage, synovial fluid, and a joint capsule. The cartilage and fluid assist in smooth movement for the joint. The two facet joints, along with the disc between the two vertebrae, work in a three-joint, tripod-type complex to allow flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral bending of the spine.

Facet Joint Degeneration

All joints within the body have specific motions they perform -- front to back, side to side, rotational movements, hinging, and so on. This movement is based on the type of joint it is; each joint has a normal range of motion based on the type of motion it performs. The main motion of the facet joints are flexion (inward) and extension (outward). An example of flexion in the elbow would be a bicep curl, while straightening the arm is an example of extension. Facet joints do allow for some rotation and lateral movement, though they prevent these in excess.

Any joint will suffer a decrease in its level of functioning if it is not moved through its full range of motion, either from improper stress on the joint, improper motions, and/or trauma. As the improper motions or forces weigh on the joint for long periods of time, the dysfunction grows, and the improper motion and stress worsens. And so the cycle goes.

In a healthy body, healthy bone is constantly being broken down, absorbed, and new bone is being laid down. This is a normal healthy process. When there is dysfunction in motion and improper stresses for sustained periods of time, the pattern in which the bone is laid down becomes skewed. The body is a self-healing mechanism and recognizes the need for more stabilization, so it begins to lay down bone in areas that it normally would not. This results in bony spurs (bone spurs) and bony protuberances called osteophytes. Other doctors call this arthritis; when the facet joint is involved, it is called facet arthritis.

Facet arthritis is not something that falls on you from the heavens, it is a degeneration that comes as a result of dysfunction and lack of motion. To make matters worse, if you have a poor diet that doesn’t meet the full nutritional needs of the body, the process of the bone breaking down, reabsorbing, and laying down new bone is further compromised.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic adjustments are the only thing that directly addresses and corrects the facet joint motion. When chiropractors adjust, they are inducing motion back into the facet joints of the spine. With motion restored, the brain can communicate better with the body and the body with the brain. Healing is improved.

You use your spine every minute of every day, so it is wise to get your spine checked and adjusted regularly to assure that it is moving the way it is intended. In addition, after the adjustment your chiropractor can give you to restore motion to the joints, it is important to exercise to improve your posture and strengthen weak muscles to better support the spine and its proper motion.

Just because you may not commonly think about the joints in your spine, it doesn’t mean they aren’t wildly important to your daily life. The health or degenerative level of these joints have a direct effect on your overall health and, if not addressed and restored, will eventually cause great havoc in your daily life from lack of motion, pain, and other symptoms.

Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. You need to take care of the joints in the spine in order to maintain the healthiest (and happiest) life possible.

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