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Facet Joint Injections

Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar Facet Joint Injections

Facet Joint Injection FAQ

Facet joints are small joints at each segment of the spine that provide stability and help guide motion. The facet joints can become painful due to arthritis of the spine, a back injury or mechanical stress to the back. A cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back) or lumbar (lower back) facet joint injection involves injecting a steroid medication, which can anesthetize the facet joints and block the pain. The pain relief from a facet joint injection is intended to help a patient better tolerate a physical therapy routine to rehabilitate his or her injury or back condition.

Facet joint injections usually have two goals: to help diagnose the cause and location of pain and also to provide pain relief:

  • Diagnostic goals: By placing numbing medicine into the joint, the amount of immediate pain relief experienced by the patient will help confirm or deny the joint as a source of pain. If complete pain relief is achieved while some of the facet joints are numb it means those joints are likely to be the source of pain.
  • Pain relief goals: Along with the numbing medication, a facet joint injection also includes injecting time-release cortisone into the facet joints to reduce inflammation, which can often provide long term pain relief. The procedure may also be called a facet block, as its purpose is to block the pain.

Anatomy of the Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar Facet Joints

The facet joints are paired joints in the back and neck, one pair at each vertebral level (one joint on each side of the vertebrae). These joints have opposing surfaces of cartilage (cushioning tissue between the bones) and a surrounding capsule that is filled with synovial fluid, which reduces the friction between bones that rub together.

Cervical facet joints are located on the back or side of the neck. Thoracic facet joints are in the upper back and lumbar facet joints are in the lower back. Depending on which joints are affected, pain can be located in different areas of the body:

  • Cervical facet joints. Pain caused by cervical facet joints is usually felt in the head, neck, shoulder, and/or arm.
  • Thoracic facet joints. Pain caused by thoracic facet joints is typically felt in the upper back, chest and/or arm (rarely).
  • Lumbar facet joints. Pain cause by lumbar facet joints is typically felt in the lower back, hip, buttock, and/or leg.

Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar Facet Joint Injection Procedure

As with many spinal injections, facet joint injections are best performed using fluoroscopy (live x-ray) for guidance to properly target and place the needle (and to help avoid nerve injury or other injury).

The injection procedure includes the following steps:

  • An IV line will be started so that adequate relaxation medicine can be given, if needed.
  • The patient lies face down on an x-ray table and the skin over the area to be treated is well cleaned.
  • The physician numbs a small area of skin with an anesthetic (a numbing medicine). This may sting for a few seconds.
  • The physician uses x-ray guidance (fluoroscopy) to direct a very small needle into the joint. Several drops of contrast dye are then injected to confirm that the medicine only goes into the joint.
  • A small mixture of anesthetic (such as lidocaine) and anti-inflammatory medication (cortisone) is then slowly injected into the joint.

The injection itself only takes a few minutes, but the entire procedure usually takes between thirty and sixty minutes. After the procedure, the patient typically remains resting on the table for twenty to thirty minutes, and then is asked to move the area of usual discomfort to try to provoke the usual pain.

Patients may or may not obtain pain relief in the first few hours after the injection, depending upon whether or not the joints that were injected are the main source of the patientís pain. On occasion, the patient may feel numb or experience a slightly weak or odd feeling in the upper back for a few hours after the injection. On the day of the injection, patients are advised to avoid driving and avoid doing any strenuous activities.

The patient should record the levels of pain relief during the next week in a pain diary. Tracking the level of pain is helpful to clearly inform the treating physician of the injection results and in planning future tests and/or treatment, as needed.



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