Most patients with lumbar degenerative disc disease will experience low-grade continuous but tolerable pain that will occasionally flare (intensify) for a few days or more. Symptoms can vary, but the general characteristics usually include:
- Pain that is centered on the lower back, although it can radiate to the hips and legs
- Lower back pain that is continuous and has lasted more than 6 weeks
- The sensation is often described as more of a painful ache in the lower back, as opposed to searing or burning pain that radiates
- Pain that is frequently worse when sitting, when the discs experience a heavier load than when patients are standing, walking or even laying down. Prolonged standing may also aggravate the pain, as can bending forward and lifting an object
- Pain that is exacerbated by certain movements, particularly bending, twisting or lifting
- Severe symptoms can include numbness and tingling in the legs, as well as difficulty walking
- If the disc space collapses enough the exiting nerve root at the particular level can get pinched (foraminal stenosis) and this in turn can lead to leg pain from the nerve root pinching (radiculopathy). For more about nerve root pain, numbness or weakness please see What You Need to Know About Sciatica
- Giving out symptoms, or pain from minimal motions (i.e. turning to wave to someone), can happen as the disc becomes weaker
- In addition to low back pain from degenerative disc disease, there may be leg pain, numbness and tingling. Even without pressure on the nerve root (a "pinched nerve"), other structures in the back can refer pain down the rear and into the legs. The nerves can become sensitized with inflammation from the proteins within the disc space and produce the sensation of numbness/tingling. Generally, the pain does not go below the knee.
- These sensations, although worrisome and annoying, rarely indicate that there is any ongoing nerve root damage. However, any weakness in the leg muscles (such as foot drop) is an indicator of some nerve root damage.
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In addition to low back pain from degenerative disc disease, there may also be:
- The proteins in the disc space can cause a lot of inflammation, and inflammation in the disc space can lead to low back pain radiating to the hips. The associated pain can also travel down the back of the legs. The inflammatory proteins can also lead to lower back muscle spasms.
- Lumbar disc degeneration can also contribute to development of lumbar stenosis and/or lumbar osteoarthritis, as well as other progressive lower back conditions.
- A degenerated disc may also lead to a lumbar herniated disc.