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?

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

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 clinical presentation or test results to give you a firm diagnosis.

Like other types of arthritis, AS is quite complex. It can involve the joints and cartilage in many parts of your body, and even your 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 modifying your diet.

In addition, your rheumatologist may wish to coordinate treatment with a number of other specialists because different parts of your body may be affected. For example, they may refer you to an ophthalmologist if you develop inflammation of your eyes, known as 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.

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 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 give you 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.