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In Plain English: Definition of Synovial (Facet) Cysts

What is a Synovial Cyst of the Spine?
Between and behind the spinal bones (called vertebrae) in your back are small joints known as facet joints. These joints function to stabilize the spine as the body twists in the neck and lower back. Over time or due to a specific condition, the spine degenerates. As this occurs, fluid-filled sacs known as synovial cysts can develop in the facet joints. Many patients who have synovial cysts do not have any symptoms, but for some, these cysts can become large enough that they cause spinal stenosis, which is a condition in which the spinal canal narrows and places pressure on spinal nerves, resulting in pain.

What Causes Synovial Cysts?
Facet joints are made up of cartilage and the synovium, which is a thin film of tissue that produces fluid to help lubricate the joints. As facet joints degenerate, this fluid may build up in an attempt to protect the joint. Sometimes, a small amount of this fluid escapes from the joint capsule, but still remains within the synovium. The fluid that escapes creates a sac-like protrusion. This is what is known as a synovial cyst. This type of cyst can occur wherever there is motion in the spine, but most commonly occurs in the lumbar spine or lower part of the back.

Signs and symptoms of synovial cysts include radiating pain and numbness in the lower back that can travel to the buttocks, thighs, and down the legs. This type of pain can be relieved when sitting because a seated position widens the spinal canal and relieves pressure on the nerves. In rare cases, these cysts can become large enough to cause neurological problems and/or loss of bowel or bladder function.

What is the Treatment for Synovial Cysts?
Treatment may not be necessary for patients who do not exhibit any symptoms. For these patients, observation may be recommended. If only mild discomfort is experienced, patients may be instructed to restrict the activities that are most uncomfortable. Pain relief medications, injections, physical therapy, and chiropractic care are all options to help relieve pain. If a patient’s pain is severe, chronic (ongoing), or if it interferes with daily living activities, surgery may be recommended for a better quality of life.

Contact University Spine Associates at 609-924-8060 to learn more about synovial cysts and available treatment options.




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