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UCBCares® 1-844-599-CARE (2273)

This site is intended for US residents.
UCBCares® 1-844-599-CARE

Ankylosing spondylitis overview

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Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a form of chronic arthritis. It often initially affects the bones and joints at the base of your spine where it connects with your pelvis. When your disease is active, these joints become inflamed. Different from typical back pain due to a sports injury or accident, AS pain is inflammatory, generally chronic, and can include periods of painful episodes called flares, followed by temporary relief. If not managed appropriately, bony growths can develop, causing the spine to fuse together in people with severe disease. Spinal fusion can reduce your range of motion and lead to an increased risk of fracture or cause the spine to curve forward. Spinal fusion can also make the rib cage stiff, restricting the ability of the lungs to hold air.

The exact cause of ankylosing spondylitis is unknown, but your genes seem to play a role. For the most part, it begins before the age of 40 and affects more males than females. Inflammatory back pain lasts longer than 3 months, worsens when you're inactive (especially at night and early in the morning), improves with physical activity, and often responds to NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.

What are the symptoms of AS?

AS starts as low, inflammatory back pain that comes and goes. But as it progresses, you're likely to experience low, inflammatory back pain most of the time. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain and stiffness which are worse at night, in the morning, or when you are less active. The pain may interfere with sleep

  • Inflammatory back pain that may begin in the joints between your pelvis and spine. Over time, you may begin to have pain in other parts or all of your spine

  • Decreased flexibility in your lower spine. If left untreated, your posture may be affected

You may also experience stiffness and pain in other parts of your body, including:

  • The joints between your ribs and breastbone, making it difficult to breathe

  • The joints of your shoulders, knees, and ankles

  • Swollen fingers and toes (sausage-like)

  • Eye pain, redness, and/or sensitivity to light

  • Pain in the back of your heel

In contrast to other more common causes of back pain, pain associated with AS often gets better with activity or exercise.

How can I tell if I have ankylosing spondylitis?

You should begin by seeing a rheumatologist—a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating AS. Prior to your visit, consider how you'd answer these questions:

  • Did your chronic back pain start before you turned 40?

  • Have you experienced frequent pain and stiffness in your back for more than 3 months?

  • Does your back feel better after you exercise?

  • Can you account for your back pain in any other way, perhaps from a sports injury or accident of some kind?

  • Is your pain and stiffness worse after you rest for a long period of time?

Having answers to these questions can lead to a more productive conversation with your rheumatologist.

What treatments are available?

AS is a progressive and at times disabling disease. One key to general improvement is ensuring that people with AS get treatment from doctors who have been trained to diagnose and treat it. These doctors, called rheumatologists, have the most expertise in diagnosing and appropriately treating AS. Treatments can include physical therapy, oral and injectable medications, and in some cases, surgery.

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