Most cases of lumbar degenerative disc disease consist of a low-grade, continuous but tolerable back pain that will occasionally intensify for a few days or more.
Symptoms can vary, but general characteristics usually include:
- Moderate, continuous low back pain. Painful aches at the site of a damaged disc is the most common symptom of a degenerative disc. Pain may spread to the buttocks, groin, and upper thighs. This pain typically feels achy, dull, and can range from mild to severe.
- Occasional pain flare-ups. Back pain may intensify for several days or weeks then return to a more moderate level. Flare-ups happen as the disc continues to degenerate and the spine gradually stabilizes. Pain flare-ups can be severe and sudden, and can temporarily reduce mobility.
- Local tenderness. The area of the low back surrounding the degenerated disc may be sensitive to touch. Local soreness is caused by inflammation and muscle tension surrounding the degenerated disc.
- Leg pain. Neurological symptoms including numbness, weakness, or sharp, shooting pains in the buttocks, hips, and/or back of the leg may be felt if the disc space collapses enough to pinch a nerve root exiting the spine. Leg pain from lumbar degenerative disc disease usually does not go below the knee.
- Giving out symptoms. A feeling of sudden weakness or instability can happen as the disc becomes weaker, creating a sensation that the low back will “give out” with sudden movements.
Additionally, pain will typically feel better or worse with certain movements, positions, and postures, such as:
- Pain with sitting. Sitting for prolonged periods often causes more severe low back pain and stiffness until standing up or changing positions. Sitting in a reclined, supported position is usually well tolerated.
- Exacerbated pain with bending or twisting. Twisting the spine and forward, backward, and side-to-side bending can cause intense, concentrated pain around the disc.
- Pain relief when walking or changing positions. When the spine changes positions, pressure is removed from the discs and placed on muscles and joints. Frequently changing positions, alternating between standing and sitting, or taking short walks can help alleviate stiffness and keep pain to a minimum.
Disc degeneration should not cause symptoms of bowel/bladder dysfunction, fever with back pain, unexplained and rapid weight loss, or intense stomach pain. These symptoms are suggestive of more serious conditions and should receive prompt medical attention.
In addition to low back pain from degenerative disc disease, other symptoms may occur that are caused by or related to the disc degeneration. For example:
- The proteins in the disc space can cause significant inflammation if they come into contact with surrounding spinal structures, and this inflammation can lead to low back muscles spasms, as well as nerve root pain radiating to the hips and down the back of the legs (also called sciatica).
- Lumbar disc degeneration can contribute to the development of lumbar stenosis and/or lumbar osteoarthritis, as well as other lower back conditions.
- A degenerated disc may also lead to a lumbar herniated disc. Neurological symptoms are common when a disc herniates, including sciatica pain in the backs of the thighs that feels hot, sharp, or stinging.
Symptoms caused by a degenerated lumbar disc can vary widely, depending on how quickly or thoroughly the disc degenerates and how it affects the surrounding spinal structures.