Prevalence of facet joint degeneration in association with intervertebral joint degeneration in a sample of organ donors

J Orthop Res. 2011 Aug;29(8):1267-74. doi: 10.1002/jor.21387. Epub 2011 Feb 25.


Among the most common causes of low back pain are strain on the muscles and ligaments associated with the spine, degeneration of the intervertebral discs (IVDs), and osteoarthritis of the facet joints. It is not clear, however, how these latter two conditions are related to each other in terms of their development during a patient's lifetime. The facet joint is the sole synovial joint of the spine but because it is difficult to image its degenerative history as well as its relationship to other degenerative factors within the spine remain elusive. We compared the gross and histologic characteristics of the lumbar spine from a sample of organ donors to the integrity of their associated IVDs as assessed through magnetic resonance imaging. In our study sample, we found that facet joint degeneration was common, occurring as early as 15 years of age, while the IVD could still remain intact. Facet degeneration was more severe at the L4/5 level and progressed along with IVD degeneration with age. Because such early degenerative changes in the facet joint are somewhat surprising, degeneration of this joint should not be overlooked when assessing OA of the spine and causes of lower back pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / pathology
  • Cartilage, Articular / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / epidemiology
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / pathology*
  • Joint Diseases / epidemiology
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / pathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Osteophyte / pathology
  • Prevalence
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult
  • Zygapophyseal Joint / pathology*