If you or your doctor thinks you have ankylosing spondylitis (AS), you probably have a lot of questions. What exactly is AS? What will treatment be like? And how do you go about finding a specialist who meets your needs?

What Is AS?

AS is a form of arthritis, which is inflammation of the joints or cartilage. AS typically targets the cartilage between the vertebrae in the spine and the joints where the pelvis meets the spine. This results in pain and stiffness in the lower back and buttocks. Over time, new bone can form in the spine. This may cause the vertebrae to fuse together. This is called ankyloses and results in a reduction of mobility and a stooped posture.

What’s a Rheumatologist?

A rheumatologist is a type of doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and similar diseases. They’re specially trained to look at your symptoms and make the right diagnosis. Although your primary care doctor may suspect AS, they may not feel comfortable enough with the test results to give you a firm diagnosis.

How Can a Rheumatologist Help?

Like other types of arthritis, AS is quite complex. It can involve the joints and cartilage in many parts of your body, and even the internal organs and eyes. You’ll want an expert on your team as soon as you’re diagnosed.

A rheumatologist will help you develop an action plan to manage your AS. This will probably include medication, exercise, and physical therapy. They also may recommend making certain lifestyle changes such as your diet.

In addition, your rheumatologist may wish to coordinate treatment with a number of other specialists because different parts of the body may be affected. For example, they may refer you to an ophthalmologist if you develop inflammation of the eyes (uveitis). Your rheumatologist may refer you to a pulmonologist if you’re having difficulty breathing.

The most severe complications of AS develop within the first 10 years of a diagnosis. Your rheumatologist will know what to watch out for and how to minimize the damage. There’s no cure for AS, but your rheumatologist will work to slow the progression of the disease.

How Do I Find the Right Rheumatologist?

Because AS is a chronic condition, your rheumatologist is a lifelong teammate. It’s important to find the right rheumatologist, even if it takes some time. Your primary care doctor may have some recommendations, or you may choose to go online and look for rheumatologists near you.

Either way, you’ll want to ask a few questions before choosing your rheumatologist. For example:

  • Do they have a location near you?
  • What days and hours are they available?
  • Have they treated many patients with AS?
  • Do they accept your insurance?
  • What hospital do they send patients to?
  • Are they available by telephone and/or email?

Depending on your priorities, you’ll likely have several more questions. It might be helpful to have a “getting to know you” appointment with any rheumatologist you’re considering. This will help you get a feel for their personality and how familiar they are with your condition.

Taking the time to find someone that’s right for you can help you during your AS treatment.

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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.