Besides back pain and stiffness, ankylosing spondylitis sufferers may also have neck pain or eye inflammation.

Ankylosing Spondylitis: An Overview

If you’ve been diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), you may be wondering what that means. AS is a type of arthritis that usually affects the spine, causing inflammation between the vertebrae and joints in the pelvis. It’s a chronic disease that can’t be cured, but it can be treated through surgery or medication.

Typical Symptoms

Although it affects people in different ways, there are certain symptoms that are usually associated with AS. These include:

  • pain and/or stiffness in the lower back and buttocks
  • gradual onset of symptoms, sometimes starting on one side
  • pain that improves with exercise and worsens with rest
  • fatigue and overall discomfort

Other Side Effects

There can be a number of other, less common side effects. Not everyone with AS will experience all of these.

Eye Problems

Inflammation of one or both eyes is called iritis or uveitis. The result is usually red, painful, swollen eyes and blurred vision.

Breathing Problems

Inflammation may spread to the cartilage in the ribcage. Over time, the bones in the ribcage may fuse, making it difficult or painful to breathe.

Pain

In addition to pain in the lower back and buttocks, those with AS may experience pain and stiffness in the neck, hips, shoulders, and back of the heel. In rare cases, your knees, elbows, fingers, and toes also may be affected.

Stomach/Bowel Problems

If your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and bowels become inflamed, you may experience stomach pain, diarrhea, and digestive problems. In some cases, you may develop ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

Difficulty Eating

Inflammation in the areas where jaw bones meet can cause serious pain and difficulty opening and closing the mouth. This could lead to problems with eating and drinking.

Possible Complications

AS is a chronic, debilitating disease. This means it can get progressively worse. Serious complications can arise over time, especially if the disease is left untreated.

Fused Spine

New bone can form between the vertebrae as the joints become damaged and then heal. This can cause the spine to fuse, making it more difficult to bend and twist. The fused spine will also begin to curve forward, resulting in a stooped posture. This fusing is called ankyloses.

Fractures

People with AS may also experience thinning bones, which can lead to compression fractures. This is most common along the spine. In some cases, the spinal cord may become damaged.

Heart Problems

Inflammation can sometimes spread to the aorta, the biggest artery. This can prevent the aorta from functioning normally, leading to heart problems.

Kidney Failure

Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen and naproxen, can be hard on the kidneys. Although these drugs can decrease inflammation, they may eventually cause the kidneys to work too hard, leading to kidney failure.

Neurological Symptoms

Neurological problems can develop in those who have had AS for a very long time. This is called cauda equina syndrome, and is caused by long-term scarring of the nerves at the base of the spine. Serious complications can arise, including:

  • incontinence
  • sexual problems
  • urine retention
  • leg pain
  • weakness

Check out this interactive video to see where symptoms may occur and how they can affect your body.

Talk to Your Doctor

It’s important to have regular — or at least yearly — check-ups with your rheumatologist. This will allow them to catch any possible complications early on, and address them before you have serious pain or other difficulties.

Read Video Transcript »

Ankylosing Spondylitis: Much More Than Back Pain

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis caused by inflammation of the joints.

Patients often begin experiencing painful symptoms in early adulthood, including aches and stiffness in the lower back and hips. These are often the worst after periods of inactivity or immediately after waking up.

Unlike typical back pain one might experience from injury or spending too many hours in a chair, ankylosing spondylitis can affect other joints, particularly joints in the spine at the lower back and pelvis. The hip and shoulder joints can also be affected as well.

The vertebrae in the back are of particular concern because, if left untreated, these joints can fuse together. This can cause a person to have a hunched over posture and may affect a person’s ability to breathe.

While many patients endure these painful symptoms for up to 10 years before receiving a proper diagnosis, those who work with their doctors to find proper treatment experience a much greater quality of life.

Experts agree that ankylosing spondylitis and other related diseases can run in families, so if you have relatives with a history of immune problems, you may be more likely to develop ankylosing spondylitis.

If you’re experiencing lasting pain for more than three months that feels worse in the morning and better with movement, you should talk to your doctor about ankylosing spondylitis as the potential cause of your symptoms.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms and whether you have a history of injuries in the affected joints. Your doctor may order imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, to get a better look at what’s causing your pain. You can also expect a simple blood test to check for signs of inflammation, as well as to rule out other potential illnesses.

Your family doctor may initially diagnose you with inflammatory back pain, and refer you to a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in medicine related to joints and autoimmune diseases. As ankylosing spondylitis is not associated with mechanical issues that occur with injury-related back pain, it cannot be simply remedied with surgery and requires other therapies.

While scientists continue to look for a cure for ankylosing spondylitis, there are many effective therapies that can relieve pain, improve dexterity, and delay advanced complications, such as joint damage.

Doctors often rely on drugs to reduce the painful and destructive joint inflammation with ankylosing spondylitis. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, known as NSAIDs, and TNF, or tumor necrosis factor, blockers. TNF blockers are part of class of medications called biologics that suppress aspects of the body’s inflammatory response and may slow the progression of ankylosing spondylitis.

Many patients also benefit from regular exercises with a physical therapist. Patients often find that stretching and rage-of-motion exercises, such as yoga or pilates, can help relieve pain, increase flexibility in joints, and improve physical strength.

Ankylosing spondylitis may be a lifelong condition, but it doesn’t have to be a life-limiting one.

Working closely with your doctor about latest treatments and making smart lifestyle choices can help keep painful symptoms at bay so you can live your life as you see fit.

To learn more about Ankylosing Spondylitis, take a look at the information we have here at Healthline or make an appointment with your doctor.