If you’ve ever had back pain, you know how debilitating it can be. Pain in your back can make it difficult for you to engage in your normal day-to-day life, or even find a comfortable position when trying to rest. I have patients whose back hurts all the time – whether sitting, standing, or laying down, it’s difficult for them to find relief. Some back pain can be indicative of serious long-term conditions, such as ankylosing spondylitis, or AS. This is an inflammatory arthritis condition that can cause some of your spinal vertebrae to fuse over time. The inflammation often causes problems in other parts of the body, like the eyes and ribs.
AS Versus Injury
Most cases of ankylosing spondylitis begin in early adulthood. It’s also more common in men than women. The cause of ankylosing spondylitis is unknown, but genes and heredity play an important role. The biggest telltale sign is back pain, but there’s a difference in inflammatory back pain, which is what you’ll feel with AS, and back pain caused by injury or strain.
The type of back pain associated with AS won’t seem to have a cause. You won’t remember injuring or straining your back because that’s not what’s causing the pain. What’s causing the problem is your immune system attacking healthy tissue in your body, resulting in inflammation in the joints of your spine.
Back pain caused by injury will feel better with rest and lasts about four to six weeks. This isn’t the case with inflammatory back pain. It will actually worsen with rest – so waking up in the morning or trying to move around after you’ve been lounging all day will be more difficult and you’ll likely notice more pain. Also, the pain is chronic, meaning it lasts longer than three months. The back pain will be located in your lower back. You might also notice pain and stiffness in your neck and hips. If the condition has persisted for a long time, you will likely feel pain in the joint between the base of your spine and pelvis, the cartilage between your breastbone and ribs and your hip and shoulder joints.
Because the condition can cause your spine to fuse, it can also lead to a hunched-over appearance when you’re standing. Since AS is an inflammatory disease, the inflammation can begin to affect other parts of your body – like your eyes. If you’re noticing any of the symptoms we’ve discussed and also painful red eye, blurred vision or light sensitivity, you might have AS.
When Should I See a Doctor?
If you suspect you have ankylosing spondylitis, see your doctor. You can’t prevent AS and it can’t be cured, but medications and therapy may help slow the progression of the disease and help you manage your symptoms.
Dr. Arnake is a board-certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation/Spine specialist who cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus, The Vintage Clinic, and Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. His clinical interests include spine and musculoskeletal medicine.