Fractures of the vertebrae are a leading cause of back pain and disability, especially in older patients.
Besides conservative therapy with medication and immobilization, one widely used treatment is percutaneous vertebroplasty—minimally invasive surgery that allows for the injection of an acrylic cement into the fractured vertebra to stabilize it.
Another option is the injection of a pain-numbing medication into the facet joints, which connect vertebrae together and act as hinges.
Research published in the May 2016 issue of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology suggests that in some patients, facet joint injections can be an effective first-line treatment, eliminating the need for surgery.
Korean researchers studied 26 patients who had facet joint injection before they were scheduled to undergo surgery. Forty-six percent of the patients reported significant relief from the injection, which contained an anesthetic and a steroid. Almost one in four experienced sufficient relief and canceled the surgery.
The study is small, and there was no control group receiving conservative treatment for comparison. But the results suggest that facet joint injection may provide enough relief from pain that a significant proportion of patients with vertebral fractures may opt not to have surgery.
If conservative treatment with analgesics, narcotics, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs doesn’t help, ask your doctor whether a facet-joint injection may be an option for you.
Peter Jaret is the author of several health-related books, including “In Self-Defense: The Human Immune System” (Harcourt Brace), “Nurse: A World of Care” (Emory University Press), and “Impact: On the Frontlines of Public Health” (National Geographic). A frequent contributor to National Geographic, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Health, More, AARP Bulletin, and dozens of other periodicals, Jaret is the recipient of an American Medical Association award for journalism and two James Beard awards. He lives in Petaluma, Calif.