What Is Ankylosing Spondylitis?

Ankylosing spondylitis, sometimes called spondylitis or rheumatoid spondylitis, is a form of arthritis. It's called an 'autoimmune disease' because the immune system, which normally protects the body, begins to attack its own tissues. At this time, the cause of the disease is unknown. The condition occurs more frequently and more severely in males, and appears to be somewhat hereditary. Over ninety-five percent of the sufferers have a gene which produces a "genetic marker' protein known as HLA-B27.

The primary effect of this disease is that the joints between the vertebrae of the spine and the joints between the spine and pelvis become inflamed. As the condition persists, the affected areas will begin to form new bone as the result of the inflammation. The extra growth can cause the spine to become inflexible and stiff, and In the most advanced cases, completely immobile, which is referred to as fusion and also known as 'bamboo spine'.

Ankylosing Spondylitis symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Some people will find themselves basically incapacitated by the disease, at least during the periods (called 'flares) of the worst symptoms. Other individuals with AS are barely bothered by it. Witness the case of a 73 year old woman hit by a car. She was taken to a hospital with a fractured spine, which was found to be fused from AS. The woman stated that she had never had a day of back pain in her life! This does bear out one oft-repeated point about AS - the disease is usually less painful in women than men. Additionally, women are stricken with ankylosing spondilytis about half as often as men, and are usually diagnosed later in life.

The early symptoms of AS include pain and stiffness in the lower back and hips which worsens in the morning or with inactivity. The pain and stiffness can move up the spine and to other joints, such as the shoulders, hips, knees, feet, tendons and ligaments, and even the eyes. In the advanced stage, the disease may cause pronounced stooping, restricted chest expansion, inflexible and stiff spine, fatigue, appetite and weight loss, bowel inflammation and eye inflammation (called iritis). Onset of the disease typically occurs between the relatively young ages of 17 and 35, making it somewhat unusual among various forms of arthritis. It can also affect younger children and those who are much older, however.

Treatment usually consists of medications to relieve pain and stiffness, such as NSAIDs, corticosteroids and TNF blockers, and then physical therapy and exercise to maintain posture and relieve stiffness. Most people who have spondylitis find that exercise helps them feel much better on a day-to-day basis, as long as they don't overdo it. Sufferers frequently find that the application of heat and/or cold to affected areas provides relief. Only rarely is surgery necessary.

A number of people have reported success treating ankylosing spondylitis with alternative treatments such as chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, yoga, and devices called TENS units that send an electric current to nerve cells through electrodes placed on the skin.

Regarding diet, there have been a number of eating programs that are purported to help with symptoms of various forms of arthritis. While none of these diets have been proven to work, it is true that some people will find that they need to avoid certain foods, as these aggravate their symptoms.

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