Facet Joint Dysfunction

Facet joints are small joints between your vertebrae that run along the outside of your spine.  Facet joint dysfunction can occur when a small piece of connective tissue between the joints gets pinched or folded, resulting in a “locked” facet.  It can also be caused by age-related degeneration of the cartilage that covers those joints.  Facet dysfunction is most common in the neck, but can occur at any level of the spine.

Most people with facet joint dysfunction will report that they “just woke up” with neck pain and were not able to turn their head.  You might also feel it lock with a mild trauma, like rapidly turning your head or with a golf swing.

Poor joint or soft tissue mobility.

– Lack of warm-up for rotational activities (golfing, pitching, etc.).

– Poor posture.

Pain in the back or neck.

– Loss of range of motion.

– Stiffness/tenderness around the affected area.

– Occasional radicular symptoms into the adjacent limb.

At Home Diagnostic Tests

Range of motion of the affected area – if you experience a consistent sharp pain or blocked feeling with one direction, you may have facet joint dysfunction (video).

– Spurlings (video).


At Home Care

– Avoidance of irritating activities.

– Gentle range of motion. 

– Heat.

– NSAID usage.


When to Seek Help

Contact your physical therapist as soon as possible.  Facet joint dysfunction does not typically improve on its own, and physical therapy can correct the problem in as few as 2-3 visits.  Contact your urgent care physician if you notice numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in your arms or legs.

Inspired Athletx Treatment

Your physical therapist will use soft tissue mobilization, which can include dry needling, to reduce the muscle spasm associated with facet joint dysfunction.  Once the soft tissue mobility is improved, your doctor of physical therapy will perform gentle joint mobilizations to “unlock” the affected joint.  Home exercises will improve range of motion and neck stability exercises.