There are several symptoms that are fairly consistent for people with lower back pain or neck pain from degenerative disc disease, including:
- Pain that is usually related to activity and will flare up at times but then return to a low-grade pain level, or the pain will go away entirely
- The amount of chronic pain—referred to as the patient's baseline level of pain—is quite variable between individuals and can range from almost no pain/just a nagging level of irritation, to severe and disabling pain
- Severe episodes of back or neck pain that will generally last from a few days to a few months before returning to the individual's baseline level of chronic pain
- Chronic pain that is completely disabling from degenerative disc disease does happen in some cases, but is relatively rare
- Activities that involve bending, lifting, and twisting will usually make the patient's pain worse
- Certain positions will usually make the pain worse. For example, for lumbar degenerative disc pain, the pain is generally made worse with sitting, since in the seated position the lumbosacral discs are loaded three times more than standing
- Walking, and even running, may actually feel better than prolonged sitting or standing
- Patients will generally feel better if they can change positions frequently
- Patients with lumbar DDD will generally feel better lying in a reclining position (such as with legs propped up in a recliner), or lying down with a pillow under the knees, since these positions relieve stress on the lumbar disc space
Severe degenerative disc disease pain
Most patients with degenerative disc disease will have some underlying chronic low back pain or neck pain, with intermittent episodes of more severe pain. The exact cause of these severe episodes of pain is not known, but it has been theorized that it is due to abnormal micromotion in the degenerated disc that spurs an inflammatory reaction. In an attempt to stabilize the spine and decrease the micromotion, the body reacts to the disc pain with muscle spasms. The reactive spasms are what make patients feel like their back has "gone out."
In general, the patient's pain should not be continuous and severe. If it is, then other diagnoses must be considered.
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Specific lumbar and cervical DDD symptoms
Degenerative disc disease most commonly occurs in the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), as these areas of the spine have the most motion and therefore are most susceptible to wear and tear.
As a final note, it is helpful for patients to know that the amount of pain does not correlate to the amount of damage in the spine. Severely degenerated discs may not produce much pain at all, and discs with little degeneration can produce severe pain. What this means for patients is that even if they are experiencing severe pain, it does not necessarily mean that there is something seriously wrong with their spine and does not necessarily mean that they need surgery to repair any damage.