How Does PRP Heal Damaged Facet Joints and Back Pain?

If you’re facing issues with your facet joints or general back pain, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections could be the perfect remedy.
PRP injections are becoming a popular treatment option among professional athletes and others as a long-lasting solution that uses the body’s ability to heal itself.
Here’s how they work to ease or even eliminate pain in the facet joints.

What are Facet Joints?

Facet Joint Syndrome is thought to be a major source of lower back pain.
The facet is a joint that lies between each of your vertebrae, and the facets connect the vertebrae to each other. Facet joints and the ligaments that surround them can be damaged if you are injured in some way or if you develop a degenerative condition such as arthritis. Damage to these joints and ligaments puts stress on the nerve endings in the joint capsules, which then causes pain.

Symptoms of Facet Joint Syndrome

  • Difficulty twisting or bending
  • It is more painful to bend backward than forward
  • Lower back pain, numbness, muscle weakness or tightening
  • Pain that worsens at night or with weather changes
  • Sound of bones grating on each other with movement
  • Abnormal curvatures of the spine

Risk Factors for Facet Joint Syndrome

Accidents that cause trauma to the vertebrae can be responsible for pain in the facet joints. So can repetitive behaviors such as improper lifting of heavy objects or bending the wrong way. These behaviors put stress on the spine.
In people over 50, chronic facet joint pain is usually caused by degeneration due to aging. Some degeneration of cartilage is part of the aging process. But several risks factors other than age or repetitive behaviors that stress the spine can also make you more likely to develop trouble with your facet joints. These factors include genetics, obesity, and poor posture.

Traditional Treatment Options

Chronic facet joint pain has traditionally been treated with measures designed to alleviate symptoms. These measures include anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxers, which can help. But they are generally only a temporary solution. More permanent solutions include a variety of facet joint surgical procedures.

The PRP Way

The PRP technique uses platelets, the small cell fragments that circulate in your blood along with red blood cells, white blood cells, and plasma. Platelets have growth factors inside them that help heal damaged tissue. These platelets cannot normally reach injured areas inside joint cavities because there are no blood vessels there. PRP injections put a concentrated level of these healing platelets into the space surrounding damaged joints, stimulating the body’s natural repair process. Once blood is drawn from the patient, it is centrifuged (spun at high speeds) to separate red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, leaving a layer of plasma at the top.

The platelets are then combined with the plasma to form platelet-rich plasma. Many clinical trials are underway to find out all the ways the unique properties of PRP injections can be used to relieve pain and bring about permanent healing. In spine practices, doctors have noted promising results from PRP in the treatment of facet joints and other spine disorders when traditional treatments have not worked. Another NIH study that compared PRP injections to steroid shots for the treatment of lumbar facet joint syndrome found that while both treatments were effective, easy and safe, PRP injections were a superior option because they offered a long-lasting solution.

What to Expect During the PRP Procedure

The PRP procedure can be done on an outpatient basis. The whole thing takes about an hour. Once your blood is drawn (about the same amount as during a routine blood test), it is put through a centrifuge. The resulting PRP is then injected directly into the facet joints. An imaging technique called fluoroscopy will be used to ensure precise placement of the injections.

You may have mild discomfort during the injection, and your doctor may use a topical anesthetic to help with this. After injection, the needle will be removed, and you will rest for a short period of time before going home. The number of PRP injections you receive will vary based on your condition, but they usually range from two to six injections, with four to six weeks of healing time in between.

When Will I Feel Better?

Most patients get a significant reduction in their pain or better movement after the first or second injection. You may need to also continue physical therapy and avoid overdoing it with physical activity for a few weeks to maximize the healing process and allow your damaged tissues to heal.

Sometimes, there is minor pain after the procedures. This pain typically does not last more than a few days, and you can minimize it with over-the-counter Tylenol. It is crucial that you avoid anti-inflammatory medications such as Aleve, Motrin, Celebrex, Naprosyn, or Mobic. These drugs may interfere with your healing process.

Are There Any Risks?

Overall, PRP is considered a safe treatment option for pain in the facet joints. Because your own blood is being used, there is no chance of rejection or an allergic reaction. Any time a needle is placed in the body, though, there is a risk of infection, bleeding or nerve damage. These risks are very low with this procedure. If you are unsure of the risks of your specific condition, you should talk to your doctor about it.

Harness Your Own Healing Power

PRP injections are an intriguing new option for harnessing the power of your own body’s healing process when more traditional treatments have not worked. Your spine specialist may recommend platelet-rich plasma as a treatment for your chronic facet joint pain, giving you a convenient, minimally-invasive solution to alleviate your pain and use your own blood to heal your damaged tissue.