Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that mostly affects the spine.
The effects of ankylosing spondylitis on the body systems
Although other joints can be involved, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) primarily affects your spine. In this particular type of arthritis, the joints and ligaments of your spine become inflamed. This can cause back pain and stiffness. In time, the bones may fuse, making it difficult to bend and move. AS can affect other joints, and in some cases, it can damage your eyes, heart, or lungs.
According to the University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, most people are diagnosed before the age of 35. The cause isn’t entirely understood, but some may have a genetic predisposition toward developing AS.
AS is a chronic disease, but most who have it continue to lead active lives. People with AS must pay special attention to posture and how they hold themselves. Daily exercise can help, and treatment generally revolves around symptom management.
The main area of inflammation is your spine, particularly your lower spine. Pain and stiffness are generally greater in the morning or after a long period of sitting. Moving around usually alleviates the symptoms. Over many years, AS can lead to curvature of your spine, resulting in a stooped posture.
Pain may also occur in your upper spine, neck, and even in your chest. Unlike some other forms of arthritis, AS usually doesn’t affect the fingers. According to the Spondylitis Association of America, about 10 percent of people with AS have jaw inflammation, which can get in the way of chewing.
Chronic inflammation can cause bones to fuse, restricting your ability to move. If bones in your chest fuse, it could affect your breathing. In some cases, inflammation also occurs in other joints, such as your shoulders, hips, knees, or ankles. This can cause pain and reduced mobility.
Imaging tests, like X-rays and MRI scans, can clearly show areas of inflammation and are useful diagnostic tools. Treatment revolves around reducing inflammation and easing pain. Early treatment may help prevent permanent damage to joints.
Maintaining a straight posture is key, even when you sleep. Choose a hard mattress and avoid thick pillows. Sleeping with your legs straight rather than curled is a good idea. Avoid stooping or slouching when standing or sitting.
In addition to medications, performing low-impact exercises regularly can help you maintain flexibility and reduce pain and stiffness. Swimming and other water exercises are often recommended for people with AS. Your doctor can advise you about what exercises may help, or refer you to a qualified physical therapist. A hot shower or bath can also help relieve soreness.
In severe cases, reconstructive surgery might be considered. But because this surgery may stimulate extra bone growth, its risks need to be carefully weighed against its benefits.