Understanding the progression of ankylosing spondylitis

Back pain is a common medical complaint, but too many people are quick to dismiss it as a natural part of aging or just an annoying problem. Chronic back pain isn’t normal, and it isn’t a condition that should be left untreated. It may be a symptom of ankylosing spondylitis.

This condition is a type of axial spondyloarthritis. As many as 1 percent of Americans, or about 2.7 million adults, may be affected by this family of diseases. Read on to learn about ankylosing spondylitis and what effects it might have on your body.

Ankylosing spondylitis is a progressive inflammatory disease and form of arthritis. The disease causes swelling in your spine and nearby joints, especially where tendons and ligaments connect to bone. Over time, the chronic inflammation can cause the vertebrae in your spine to fuse together. As a result, your spine becomes less flexible.

Many people with the disease hunch forward due to weakening of certain muscles of the spine. In advanced cases of the disease, the inflammation may be so bad that a person can’t lift their head to see in front of them.

The most common risk factors include:

  • Your gender: Men are more likely to develop the disease than women.
  • Your genes: Researchers have identified a gene that is common in people with ankylosing spondylitis. The HLA-B27 gene is found in about 8 percent of Americans. However, only about 2 percent of people born with the gene will actually develop the disease.
  • Your age: Ankylosing spondylitis generally first shows signs and symptoms in young adulthood.

The earliest symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis are easy to ignore. That’s why most people don’t seek treatment until after the disease has progressed.

The first symptoms include:

  • back pain
  • stiffness, especially in the morning
  • increased symptoms after sleeping or being inactive for a long period of time

Ankylosing spondylitis often affects these joints:

  • the joint between your spine and pelvis, known as the sacroiliac joint
  • the vertebrae, especially in your lower back
  • hip joints
  • shoulder joints
  • ribs
  • the breastbone

If left untreated, chronic inflammation can ultimately cause the vertebrae in your spine to fuse together. You may have decreased range of motion when bending, twisting, or turning. You may also have greater, more frequent back pain.

Spine and vertebrae inflammation can spread to other joints, including your hips, shoulders, and ribs. The inflammation may affect the tendons and ligaments that connect to your bones. In some cases, the inflammation can spread to organs, such as your bowel or even your lungs.

Leaving ankylosing spondylitis untreated may lead to one or more of these conditions:

  • Uveitis: Inflammation that spreads to your eyes may cause pain, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision.
  • Difficulty breathing: Rigid joints in your ribs and breastbone may prevent you from breathing deeply or fully inflating your lungs.
  • Fractures: Damaged, weakened bones may break easily. Fractures in your spine can damage your spinal cord and the nerves around it.
  • Heart damage: Inflammation that spreads to your heart can cause an inflamed aorta. A damaged aortic valve may impair your heart’s ability to function properly.

Weakened bones are common in people with ankylosing spondylitis. These weak, fragile bones give way to osteoporosis, a condition that raises your risk of spinal fractures. Up to half of all patients with ankylosing spondylitis also may have osteoporosis.

Ankylosing spondylitis has no cure. The earlier you and your doctor detect and diagnose it, the better. Treatment can help prevent worsening symptoms and ease what you’re experiencing. It can also slow the progression of the disease and delay the onset of additional problems.

It’s important that you work closely with your doctor to find a treatment plan that best addresses the discomfort and problems you’re experiencing. Though you can’t cure it, you can find help. Treatment can help you lead a normal, productive life, despite your diagnosis.