Back pain is one of the most common medical complaints in America today. In fact, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it’s the second most common neurological ailment reported.

Unfortunately, back pain is all too often left undiagnosed. It’s discounted as an annoying problem, hidden by over-the-counter pain meds, and often left untreated. However, a specific diagnosis of the cause is possible. In some cases this back pain may be the result of ankylosing spondylitis.

What Is Ankylosing Spondylitis?

Ankylosing spondylitis is a progressive inflammatory disease and form of arthritis. As many as one percent of Americans, or about 2.7 million adults, may be affected by the disease. Ankylosing spondylitis causes swelling in the spine and nearby joints. Over time, the chronic inflammation can cause the vertebrae in the spine to fuse together. As a result, the spine will be less flexible.

Many people with the disease hunch forward to compensate for their rigid spine. In advanced cases of the disease, the inflammation may be so bad that a person cannot lift their head in order to see in front of them. As the disease worsens, the spine loses its flexibility, and the back pain grows worse.

What Are the Early Symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis?

Ankylosing spondylitis causes inflammation around the spine and vertebrae. The initial symptoms of the disease include:

  • chronic pain in the lower back and hips
  • stiffness in the lower back and hips
  • increased pain and stiffness in the morning or after long periods of being inactive

What Happens if the Disease Is Left Untreated?

If left untreated, the chronic inflammation can cause the vertebrae in your spine to fuse together. When this happens, your spine may become less flexible and more rigid. You may have decreased range of motion when bending, twisting, or turning. You may also have greater and more frequent back pain. 

The inflammation from the spine and vertebrae can spread to other nearby joints, including the hips, shoulders, and ribs. This may cause more pain and stiffness in your body. The inflammation may also affect the tendons and ligaments that connect to the bones, which may make moving joints increasingly difficult. In some cases, it’s possible that the inflammation will spread to organs, such as the bowel or even the lungs.

Complications of not treating the disease include:

  • uveitis, or eye inflammation: If inflammation spreads to your eyes, you may develop eye pain, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision.
  • difficulty breathing: Inflammation and arthritis can spread from your spine to your nearby ribs. You may not be able to breathe deeply or fully inflate your lungs.
  • compression fractures: Damaged, weakened bones may break easily. For people with ankylosing spondylitis, this is especially true in the spine’s vertebrae. Fractures in the bones of your spine may damage the spinal cord and the nerves connected to it.
  • heart damage: Inflammation can spread to your heart and the aorta. Over time, the aorta may become enlarged and distorted as a result of the inflammation. A damage aortic valve may impair the heart’s ability to function properly.

What Other Conditions Are Common in Ankylosing Spondylitis Patients?

Several other conditions occur in people with ankylosing spondylitis. These additional disorders or diseases include:

  • psoriasis: Psoriasis is a common skin disorder that causes red, scaly patches of skin.
  • osteoporosis: Calcium poor bones are common in people with ankylosing spondylitis. These weak, fragile bones may fracture.  Up to half of all patients with ankylosing spondylitis also have osteoporosis.

When to See a Doctor

Ideally, you and your doctor will discover and diagnose your ankylosing spondylitis early. You can begin early treatment that can help you reduce the symptoms and mitigate possible long-term complications. However, not everyone will be diagnosed with this condition at an early stage. It’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing back pain and are unsure of the cause. 

If you suspect your symptoms are related to ankylosing spondylitis, see your doctor as soon as you can. The longer you wait, the greater the chances are you’ll experience more severe symptoms and complications.