Patient Information

What is ankylosing spondylitis?

What is ankylosing spondylitis? — Ankylosing spondylitis is a disease that causes pain and stiffness in the back, neck, and hips. It begins with inflammation around the bones in the spine or in some joints. Later, it causes the bones in the spine to fuse together.

What are the symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis? — The most common symptom is pain in the low back. This pain usually:

  • Starts between the ages of 20 and 30
  • Comes on slowly
  • Lasts for more than 3 months
  • Is worse after resting, such as first thing in the morning
  • Feels better with movement

The back might also become less flexible. This can make it harder to do things like bend forward to put on socks or shoes.

Other symptoms might include:

  • Pain or arthritis in other joints, such as the hips or shoulders
  • Pain or swelling in other parts of the body, such as the elbows, heels, or ribs
  • Feeling tired and not well

In rare cases, ankylosing spondylitis can lead to other problems, such as:

  • Inflammation of part of the eye – This is called “iritis” or “uveitis,” and causes eye pain and blurry vision.
  • Problems with the spinal cord – Ankylosing spondylitis makes it more likely that the spine will break in an accident. This can hurt the spinal cord.
  • Problems with the way the heart valves work
  • Breathing problems – Some people have stiffness between the ribs and spine. This can make it harder to breathe deeply and to exercise.
  • Inflammation of the inside of the intestines, which usually does not cause any obvious symptoms
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Is there a test for ankylosing spondylitis? — No. There is no one test that can tell if you have ankylosing spondylitis. But your doctor or nurse should be able to tell if you have it by learning about your symptoms, doing an exam, and using imaging tests to look at your bones and joints.

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. You can reduce the chance that your condition will cause problems if you:

  • Stop smoking – If you smoke and have ankylosing spondylitis, you will be more likely to have breathing problems. Quitting smoking can help with this.
  • Exercise – Exercise can help prevent some of the stiffness caused by ankylosing spondylitis. Follow your doctor’s instructions for exercising and stretching.
  • Get plenty of calcium and vitamin D – This can help to keep your bones from getting weak.
  • Use a thin pillow – Sleeping on a thick pillow can cause neck problems in people with ankylosing spondylitis.
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How is ankylosing spondylitis treated? — Treatment depends on your symptoms and how severe your condition is. The goal of treatment is to relieve your symptoms, help you do your normal activities, and keep your condition from causing other problems.

Exercise is an important part of treating ankylosing spondylitis. Some people work with a physical therapist (an exercise expert) to learn the best way to exercise. As part of their exercise routine, most people work on posture, do deep breathing, and stretch their back.

Many people with ankylosing spondylitis also take one or more medicines. These might include:

  • NSAIDs – This is a large group of medicines that includes ibuprofen (sample brand names: Advil®, Motrin®) and naproxen (sample brand names: Aleve®, Naprosyn®). These medicines can help relieve pain and stiffness.
  • Other medicines – There are other medicines that can help treat symptoms and keep ankylosing spondylitis from getting worse. Your doctor or nurse will decide which medicines are best for you.
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Surgery can help some people with severe ankylosing spondylitis. For instance, some people have hip replacement surgery to replace a bad hip joint.

What will my life be like? — Ankylosing spondylitis can make it hard to do simple things, such as getting dressed, getting up from a sitting position, and looking side to side. You might need help from family or friends.

Your condition puts you at risk of serious back injury. To reduce the chances that you will get hurt:

  • Remove loose rugs, electrical cords, and any clutter that could make you trip
  • Do not drink a lot of alcohol or take sleeping pills
  • Avoid sports or activities that might cause injury
  • Always wear a seatbelt while riding in a car