Ankylosing Spondylitis

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Summary

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that targets the joints of the spine, particularly the sacroiliac (SI) joint where the spine attaches to the pelvis.
  • There is no cure for AS - medical treatment aims to manage pain, reduce the risk of complications and improve quality of life.
  • The most important management tool is regular exercise, which helps to keep the spine mobile and flexible.

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Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that targets the joints of the spine. It first affects the sacroiliac (SI) joint, where the spine attaches to the pelvis, and then starts to affect other areas of the spine. The hips and shoulders can be affected, and so can the eyes, skin, bowel and lungs. Symptoms of AS include back pain, stiffness and reduced mobility in the spine. 

Ankylosing spondylitis affects men more often than women. The condition usually appears between the ages of 15 and 45 years. There is no cure for AS, however, there are things you can do to help control your symptoms. 

Effects of ankylosing spondylitis

Inflammation occurs as part of the disease. New bone may grow around the joints in the spine in response to the inflammation. This leads to permanent stiffness in the back and neck of some people with AS. In severe cases, this extra bone can fuse the bones of the spine together. This used to be common, but now can usually be prevented by starting proper treatment as early as possible. 

Most people with AS can lead full and active lives, because the condition can be well controlled. There are times when symptoms may become worse (known as a flare) and times when the symptoms become better. It is important that you learn about your condition and play an active role in managing your AS.

spine image

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Causes of ankylosing spondylitis

The exact cause of ankylosing spondylitis is unknown, but genes are thought to play a part. You are more likely to get AS if you have a history of it in your family. Studies show that almost nine out of ten people with AS have the gene called HLA-B27. However, this gene is present in eight per cent of the general population, including people without AS.

Since the presence of this gene does not automatically lead to the development of AS, other factors are thought to be involved. Researchers currently think that exposure to certain environmental triggers can lead to the development of AS in people with the gene. But these triggers are unknown.

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Symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis

The symptoms of AS vary from one person to the next, but they are usually worse after rest and relieved with exercise. The most common symptoms are:

  • pain and stiffness in the back, buttocks or neck, often waking with early morning stiffness and pain
  • pain in tendons (which connect muscles to bones) and ligaments (which connect bones to each other), often felt as pain at the front of the chest, back of the heel or underneath the foot.

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Diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis

Early diagnosis is important so that treatment can be commenced to prevent damage to the spine.

Investigation and diagnosis of AS may include:

  • medical history
  • physical examination
  • x-ray
  • scanning procedures such as CT or MRI
  • blood test
  • genetic testing.

These tests are generally organised by a rheumatologist or doctor who can explain the results.

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Treatment for ankylosing spondylitis

There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis. Medical treatment aims to manage pain, reduce the risk of complications and improve quality of life. Treatment will be tailored to your specific symptoms and the severity of your condition.

Medication for ankylosing spondylitis

Medications for the treatment of ankylosing spondylitis include:

  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • biological disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (bDMARDs) – new drugs that work by targeting certain overproduced proteins that cause inflammation and damage to bones, cartilage and tissue
  • corticosteroid medication
  • analgesics (pain-relieving medication).

Exercise for ankylosing spondylitis

Although exercise is important for general wellbeing, it is especially important in managing AS. Exercise can be used to relieve pain, but is also important in maintaining mobility in the spine. 

Specific strengthening exercises should be performed to maintain strength through the spine. Exercises performed in warm water (hydrotherapy) can be beneficial.

For overall wellbeing, general strengthening and aerobic exercises should also be performed. If you have AS, you may benefit from seeing a health professional to get an exercise program for your specific needs. Consider seeing a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist who specialises in the treatment of AS.

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Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Physiotherapist
  • Exercise physiologist
  • MOVE muscle, bone & joint health
    Help Line 1800 263 265

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Things to remember

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that targets the joints of the spine, particularly the sacroiliac (SI) joint where the spine attaches to the pelvis.
  • There is no cure for AS – medical treatment aims to manage pain, reduce the risk of complications and improve quality of life.
  • The most important management tool is regular exercise, which helps to keep the spine mobile and flexible.

More information

  • Need medical information regarding your condition and commonly prescribed treatments? Or assistance navigating the health, disability and social services systems? Contact our nurses on the our Help Line on 1800 263 265 or email helpline@move.org.au.
  • Interested in finding out about our upcoming webinars and seminars and other events. Click here to learn more. 
  • Do you want to find out more about how you can live well with ankylosing spondylitis? Check out our library catalogue to see what items are available. 

Download a PDF copy of this information.

This information has been provided by the Better Health Channel and has been produced in consultation with and approved by: MOVE muscle, bone & joint health Ltd.

Our Story - Mike and Stan

Our Story - Mike and Stan

Mike McKenzie and Stan Proctor will cycle 3,750km from Melbourne to Darwin this September to raise funds and awareness for the 6.1 million Aussies living with conditions that affect their muscles, bones and joints. Mike decided to take on the challenge after his 29 year old son Bradley was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis a painful musculoskeletal condition that results in inflammation of the spine, the joints of the neck, back and pelvis causing pain and stiffness.

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My Story - Liz

My Story - Liz

Liz Lyons is just 23 years old. She lives with ankylosing spondylitis but it doesn’t get her down… “The reason I’m sharing my experience with arthritis is because I hope to encourage other young people to harness the resilience that you develop through living with a chronic disease, and inspire them to refuse to let their arthritis be an obstacle to going after what they want." 

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Move - muscle, bone and joint health, the new voice of Arthritis Victoria

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We may have a new name but since 1968 we have been the leading provider of supported solutions and trusted knowledge to the one-in-three Australians who live with these conditions.

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