By Marshall Ney, MD
After completing her run in a downhill skiing competition in Switzerland this past December, four-time Olympian Lindsey Vonn fell to the ground and appeared to be in immense pain while reaching for her lower back. The 2018 Winter Olympics were less than two months away, and the darling of the U.S. Ski Team seemed in doubt to compete in Pyeongchang.
Vonn later shared the details of her injury on her Twitter account. She explained that the diagnosis was acute facet (spinal joint) dysfunction. So, what is that, exactly? And how is Vonn now ready to compete in the world’s most prominent winter sports event so soon after her diagnosis?
Symptoms and diagnosis
Facet joint issues are actually very common. These can be disabling lower-back and neck problems, causing serious pain symptoms, which sometimes can occur in unpredictable patterns just a few times per month or per year. Pain in the lower back can also radiate down as far as the upper portions of the legs. Pain can often increase while leaning backward.
While we obviously don’t know exactly what Vonn’s treatment plan was – medical privacy guidelines certainly prevent that – we do know several ways to treat these conditions successfully:
- Physical therapy – A trained professional can recommend basic exercises.
- Heat or ice – Basic home treatment with heating pads, ice packs or a hot shower can help ease symptoms.
- Improved posture – Being mindful of proper spine curvature during day-to-day activity can go a long way toward long-term alleviation of the symptoms.
- Medications – In some cases, anti-inflammatory medications or NSAIDs may be prescribed.
- Injections – In persistent cases of back pain thought to be caused by the facet joints, a physician may inject the facet joints much like other providers inject shoulders or knees.
- Surgery – In very rare cases in which problems persist, a bone-fusion surgery may be recommended to resolve facet joint issues.
For most people who suffer from facet joint issues such as acute facet (spinal joint) dysfunction, the problems can be managed by basic treatments such as improved posture and physical therapy.
Marshall Ney, MD, is a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician with Carolina Spine and Neurosurgery Center.