Differential Diagnosis of Facet Joint Disorders

Radiographics. 2021 Mar-Apr;41(2):543-558. doi: 10.1148/rg.2021200079. Epub 2021 Jan 22.


Spinal pain due to facet joint disease is difficult to diagnose since the clinical history and physical examination findings are usually nonspecific. Facet joint disorders have a wide range of causes and, because of the potential for chronic back pain and disability, an accurate diagnosis is essential. The most frequent cause of pain in facet joints is osteoarthritis, which can be assessed at radiography, CT, or MRI. Ganglion and synovial cysts of the facet joints can cause compressive symptoms of adjacent structures, especially radiculopathy, lower back pain, and sensory or motor deficits. In ankylosing spondylitis, imaging findings of the facet joints are useful not only for diagnosis but also for monitoring structural changes. In septic arthritis of the facet joints, an early diagnosis at MRI is essential. Gout and metabolic diseases are best evaluated at dual-energy CT, which allows the depiction of crystals. Traumatic dislocations of facet joints are usually unstable injuries that require internal reduction, fixation, and fusion and can be well assessed at CT with three-dimensional reconstructions. Facet joint neoplasms like osteoid osteoma, plasmacytoma, tenosynovial giant cell tumor, and osteochondroma are best evaluated at CT or MRI. The authors provide an overview of key imaging features of the most common facet joint disorders along with anatomic tips and illustrative cases. Acknowledging key imaging findings for the differential diagnosis of facet joint disorders plays a crucial role in the diagnostic accuracy and proper treatment approach for such entities. Online supplemental material is available for this article. ©RSNA, 2021.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Back Pain
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain*
  • Spine
  • Zygapophyseal Joint* / diagnostic imaging