Back pain is a common medical complaint today, 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 much as one percent of Americans, or about 2.7 million adults, may be affected by the disease. Click through this slideshow to learn about ankylosing spondylitis and what effects it might have on your body.
What Is Ankylosing Spondylitis?
Ankylosing spondylitis is a progressive inflammatory disease and form of arthritis. The disease causes swelling in the spine and nearby joints. Over time, the chronic inflammation can cause the vertebrae in the spine to fuse together. As a result, the spine becomes less flexible. Many people with the disease hunch forward to compensate for their rigid spine. In advanced cases of the disease, the inflammation may be so bad that a person cannot lift their head to see in front of them.
Who Is Affected By Ankylosing Spondylitis?
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 eight percent of Americans. However, only about two 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
- increased symptoms after sleeping or being inactive for a long period of time
Ankylosing spondylitis often affects these joints:
- the joint between the spine and the pelvis, known as the sacroiliac joint
- the vertebrae in the lower back
- where tendons and ligaments attach to bones, known as the enthuses
- hip joints
- shoulder joints
- the ribs and breastbone
When Ankylosing Spondylitis Is Left Untreated
If left untreated, chronic inflammation can ultimately cause the vertebrae in the 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 the hips, shoulders, and ribs. The inflammation may affect the tendons and ligaments that connect to the bones. In some cases, the inflammation can spread to organs, such as the bowel or even the lungs.
The Dangers of Going Untreated
Leaving ankylosing spondylitis untreated may lead to one of these conditions:
- uveitis: inflammation that spreads to the 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 the spine can damage the 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 the heart’s ability to function properly.
Other Common Conditions in Ankylosing Spondylitis Patients
There are a few conditions that are more likely to occur in people who have the disease. These disorders or diseases include:
- psoriasis: Psoriasis is a common skin disorder that causes red, scaly patches of skin.
- osteoporosis: Weakened bones are common in people with ankylosing spondylitis. These weak, fragile bones give way to osteoporosis. Up to half of all patients with ankylosing spondylitis also have osteoporosis.
Working with Your Doctor
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.