The Normal Spine and the Effects of Aging

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a form of arthritis that’s associated with long-term inflammation of the spinal joints, also called vertebrae. The condition can cause back and hip pain, stiffness, and affect a person’s mobility.

The spine is designed to protect the vulnerable nerves of the spinal cord. Like interlocking puzzle pieces, the bones of the vertebral column fit together perfectly. This allows for flexibility without compromising spinal cord protection. 

As normal aging progresses, the tissue of the cushioning intervertebral discs develops small tears and cracks. At the same time, the inner gel-like core of the vertebra, called the nucleus pulposus, gradually loses water and the ability to absorb shocks efficiently. Eventually the outer ring of the vertebra, called the annulus fibrosus, weakens and tears. The bulging disc can press on nerves and cause pain.

The Effects and Progression of Ankylosing Spondylitis

AS is an inflammatory autoimmune arthritis that mostly affects the spine and sacroiliac joints (SI). There are two SI joints on either side of the spine in the pelvis.

Although no one knows what causes the inflammation that ultimately results in the development of “stiff vertebrae,” genetics plays a role. As the inflamed vertebrae produce extra bone, they eventually fuse together. This fusion encases the shock-absorbing spinal discs and severely limits the flexibility of the spine. Once the vertebrae become fused, it’s sometimes called “bamboo spine.”

How Ankylosing Spondylitis Can Restrict Movement

In this comparison, the vertebrae of the lower spine have fused together, making it difficult for the affected individual to bend backward and forward, as needed.

People with AS may awaken very stiff and find it difficult to sit or stand for extended periods of time. Physical therapy and exercise, especially swimming, may be prescribed. Also, some physicians believe that maintaining good posture may help prevent a fused or curved spine.

Treating Ankylosing Spondylitis

Although there’s no current cure for AS, excellent therapies are available to reduce inflammation, lessen pain, and slow disease progression. Treatments range from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or prescription doses of NSAIDs to newer biologic therapies like: