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Symptoms and Signs of Lumbar Disc Disease

Doctor's Notes on Lumbar Disc Disease

Lumbar disc disease (also called lumbar spondylosis) refers to a group of degenerative disorders that can lead to lower back pain as people age. There are three main processes that make up lumbar disc disease: internal disc disruption, degenerative disc disease, and segmental instability.

Symptoms of lumbar disc disease include chronic low back pain that usually develops between 20 to 50 years of age, pain worsens when sitting or bending forward, localized tenderness in the lower back, and pain that is persistent and lasts longer than six weeks. If there is internal disc disruption, symptoms include a deep ache in the low back that increases over several months and pain that worsens with motion. As lumbar disc disease progresses, pain is felt in the lower back as well as the back of the buttocks and thighs. Once there is segmental instability there is increasing pain radiating down the lower extremities, which increases with movement and walking.

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Lumbar Disc Disease Symptoms

People with lumbar disc disease typically develop complaints of chronic low back pain between the ages of 20 and 50 years. Often there is no history of a traumatic event preceding the onset of pain.

  • Pain is often made worse with sitting or bending forward. There is localized tenderness in the lower back. Pain is persistent and lasts longer than six weeks.
  • Men and women are equally affected.
  • The symptoms of lumbar disc disease worsen as the degenerative changes in the spine progress from internal disc disruption to degenerative disc disease to segmental instability.
  • With internal disc disruption, people have a deep ache in the low back that increases over several months. Pain is worse with motion.
  • When this condition progresses, degenerative disc disease pain is present in the low back as well as the back of the buttocks and thighs.
  • People with segmental instability have increasing pain radiating down the lower extremities. This pain is increased with movement and walking.

Lumbar Disc Disease Causes

Lumbar disc disease is caused by normal degenerative changes that occur as a person ages. The lumbar spine is composed of motion segments. Each motion segment consists of two vertebral bodies, the intervertebral disc, and two facet joints. The intervertebral disc acts as the cushion, or "shock absorber," of the spine.

The intervertebral disc is made up mostly of water. This allows it to maintain its cushion-like properties. As people age, the intervertebral disc loses some of its water content. As this happens, the outer layers of the disc are more likely to develop cracks or tears. These can be a significant source of low back pain. This is the beginning of internal disc disruption.

When the outer layer of the disc cracks, the disc looses its normal water content. This reduces its ability to act as a cushion for the loads applied to the spine. Eventually, it leads to a collapse of the disc and degenerative changes in both the vertebral bodies and the facet joints of the spine. When this occurs, the condition is known as degenerative disc disease.

The final process in lumbar disc disease occurs when the degenerative changes lead to destruction of the ligamentous and other soft tissue restraints of the spine. This is known as segmental instability, which occurs when a loss of the normal structural stability of the spinal segment occurs.

Low Back Pain Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Relief Slideshow

Low Back Pain Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Relief Slideshow

Nearly everyone will experience some form of back pain in his or her lifetime. The low back is the area behind the belly from the rib cage to the pelvis and is also called the lumbar region. Back pain is a major cause of missed work. Low back pain usually resolves on its own and is commonly the result of a strain injury. There are many treatments for low back pain.

At Risk for Lower Back Pain?

Low back pain can start in a person’s early twenties and continue on throughout adulthood. Studies have shown that up to 80% of the general population are affected by low back pain (LBP) at some time during their lives. Learn to prevent lower back pain by knowing what activities could be putting you at risk.

Common Causes of Low Back Pain

  • Manual materials handling (especially lifting)
  • Twisting of the trunk
  • Bending the trunk forward
  • Bending the trunk to the side
  • Excessive reaching
  • Falls
  • Prolonged sitting
  • Sedentary jobs
  • Highly physical jobs
  • Exposure to whole-body vibration
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Obesity
  • Extreme tallness


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.