Understanding and managing ankylosing spondylitis

Understanding and managing ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is another type of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, lower back, and sacroiliac joints. It’s an inflammatory condition that slowly causes small bones in the spine to fuse, making the spine less flexible over time. It’s a lifelong condition that can spread up to the neck and affects the joints across the body. Keep reading to understand more about ankylosing spondylitis and ways to manage it.

Signs and symptoms

People with ankylosing spondylosis may initially experience pain and stiffness in their lower back and hips. Neck pain and fatigue are also quite common. The symptoms can show up differently in different individuals. Some people experience mild pain that flares up and subsides, while others have severe, long-lasting pain. One of the most common symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis is back pain in the morning and at night. Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Stiffness in the morning
  • Stooped shoulders
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Low-grade fever
  • Reduced lung function
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia

The inflammation and pain associated with ankylosing spondylitis are not limited to the spine. Other body parts can also get affected, including ribs, shoulders, knees, ankles, feet, top of the shin bone in the lower leg, and Achilles tendon. Bone fusion or overgrowth of bones at the joints can interfere with daily tasks. As the inflammation spreads and worsens, people can experience inflammation in the bowels, eyes, and heart valves.

Causes and risk factors

The exact causes of ankylosing spondylitis are not yet known. However, studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors may contribute to the development of the condition. Some of the common risk factors for ankylosing spondylitis include:

  • Family history
    Studies show that people with a parent or sibling with ankylosing spondylitis are quite likely to develop the condition at some point in their life. Particularly, people who have a gene called HLA-B27 are at a higher risk. Over 90% of people with ankylosing spondylitis are found to have this gene. The reason behind this is not yet found.
  • Age and sex
    Unlike other forms of arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis often develops in younger people between the ages of 20 and 40. Also, men are three times more likely to develop the condition than women.

There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis as of today. However, various treatment options available can help alleviate the symptoms and manage the progression of the condition. Doctors commonly prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and inflammation. When NSAIDs are no longer effective, doctors may prescribe more powerful medications, like corticosteroids. They may also ask patients to take tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, which are medications used to block inflammation-causing cells in the body. And in extreme cases of damage and deformity to the knee and hip joints, a joint replacement may become necessary.

Besides medical treatments, people with ankylosing spondylitis can also try some natural remedies to soothe the symptoms. Sometimes, these remedies are combined with medications to boost the overall effect. These include:

  • Exercise and stretching
    Both range-of-motion exercises and strength training exercises help strengthen joints and improve flexibility, easing the symptoms. Stretching can further help increase flexibility and relieve muscle stiffness, swelling, and pain.
  • Posture training
    As the condition progresses, bones in the spine can fuse, resulting in slouching or slumping positions. Practicing good posture reduces the risk of poor posture because of ankylosing spondylitis.
  • Heat and cold therapy
    Both heat and cold therapy have different effects and both can be very helpful in easing the symptoms. Applying heating pads or taking warm showers can help reduce pain and stiffness in the spine and other affected joints. Ice packs can help reduce swelling and decrease inflammation.

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