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 (AS).

Ankylosing spondylitis is a progressive inflammatory disease and form of arthritis. The disease causes inflammation in your spine and nearby joints, especially where tendons and ligaments connect to bone.

Read on to learn about ankylosing spondylitis and what effects it might have on your body.

AS is a progressive disease which means it worsens over time. There also isn’t currently a cure. But there are ways to slow the progression of the condition and help you stay active.

Researchers are working to develop new treatments, and early diagnosis can help you and your healthcare team create a plan that will work for you.

AS can be a challenging condition to diagnose due to overlapping symptoms with other conditions and varied symptoms early on. The degree of progression will vary from person to person, so it’s hard to predict how symptoms may change or worsen over time.

These factors may indicate a more severe form of the disease:

  • involvement of the hip
  • poor response to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories
  • younger age of onset
  • limited motion in the lower back
  • presence of other conditions such as psoriasis or inflammatory bowel disease

Beginning stages of AS

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

The first symptoms often include:

  • back pain, usually a dull pain that may start on one side and move to the other
  • stiffness, especially in the morning
  • increased symptoms after sleeping or being inactive for a long period of time
  • some relief from light exercise or stretching
  • fatigue as the body deals with the inflammation

Ankylosing spondylitis often affects these joints:

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

Later stages of AS

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.

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.

In some cases, inflammation can be seen in other organs such as your bowel, heart, or lungs. For instance, inflammatory bowel disease has been seen in about 6 to 14 percent of those with AS, which is significantly more than in the general public.

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

AS is manageable, and early treatment is advised to prevent progressive pain and a decrease in mobility. Exercise, medications, and more advanced treatments such as biologics, can aid in delaying later symptoms.

However, leaving the condition untreated may lead to one or more of these conditions:

  • Uveitis. Inflammation of your eyes, causing 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 more 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.

Some people with the advanced cases may hunch forward, resulting in kyphosis, due to weakening of certain muscles of the spine and fusing of the vertebrae.

Ankylosing spondylitis has no cure and can be challenging to diagnose, especially early on. 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 yet cure it, you can find help. Treatment can help you lead a normal, productive life, despite your diagnosis.