From its hard-to-pronounce name to its potentially devastating back pain, ankylosing spondylitis isn’t well known or well understood. Get the ankylosing spondylitis facts you need to know.
If you have ankylosing spondylitis (pronounced ank-kih-low-sing spon-dill-eye-tiss), you probably know that there’s a lot to learn about this form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine. In fact, many people misunderstand this uniquely-named condition, says Nortin M. Hadler, MD, rheumatologist and professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here are some of the top misconceptions about ankylosing spondylitis (AS).
Myth No. 1: Ankylosing spondylitis is a rare condition.
Fact: AS is more common than you might think. Estimates have shown that ankylosing spondylitis affects up to 1.4 percent of the general population, says Elyse Rubenstein, MD, a rheumatologist with Saint John’s Health in Santa Monica, Calif. That means it’s more common than multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined, according to the Spondylitis Association of America. Ankylosing spondylitis is the most common condition within a group of several rheumatic conditions called the spondyloarthropathies, which cause chronic joint problems.
Myth No. 2: Ankylosing spondylitis is primarily a concern for men.
Fact: Although young men are two to three times more likely to be affected by spondyloarthropathies than young women, ankylosing spondylitis affects both sexes, says Dr. Hadler. “The cases in men tend to be more severe,” he says. Adding to the misconception is that the symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis in women may make it harder to diagnose. For example, some women may start experiencing symptoms in the neck instead of the lower back.
Myth No. 3: Ankylosing spondylitis only affects your back.
Fact: Chronic back pain is a very common clue that leads to a diagnosis — that’s because AS often affects the spine. But ankylosing spondylitis can also affect other parts of the body, including the aortic valve of the heart; the eyes, via an inflammatory process called uveitis; the skin, via the condition psoriasis; the ribs; the digestive system; and the kidneys.
Myth No. 4: Rest is one of the best ways to combat ankylosing spondylitis pain.
Fact: Activity is actually one of the best things you can do for your ankylosing spondylitis, says Dr. Rubenstein. “I recommend a good exercise regimen and physical therapy,” she says. Indeed, research published in the March 2014 issue of Annals of Rheumatic Disease found that study participants who followed a home exercise routine of postural, muscle strength, stretching, and respiratory exercises improved their quality of life and decreased emotional stress and fatigue associated with ankylosing spondylitis. Ask your doctor about specific exercises that might be good for you to do at home.
Myth No. 5: You shouldn’t take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, if you have ankylosing spondylitis.
Fact: Some people are hesitant to take NSAIDs for ankylosing spondylitisbecause they’ve heard the drugs can upset the stomach. However, NSAIDs are actually the most common pain reliever prescribed for people in the early stages of the condition, Rubenstein says. When you take them under a doctor’s supervision, you can minimize the risk of side effects like heartburn.
Myth No. 6: Ankylosing spondylitis always results in a fused spine.
Fact: A fused spine only occurs in late stages of AS, says Rubenstein. For some people, the condition never progresses that far. Following your prescribedtreatment plan, which should include both exercise and medication, can help your prognosis.
Myth No. 7: Ankylosing spondylitis is always diagnosed from back pain.
Fact: It’s hard to diagnose ankylosing spondylitis only based on back pain because back pain is so common. “Hardly anyone goes one year without a backache,” says Hadler. Although some people persist in looking for answers for their chronic back pain, others may dismiss it, not realizing they have a more serious condition. Because ankylosing spondylitis can affect other parts of the body, the diagnosis may actually come from another problem, says Hadler. It’s also possible for a physician to see the signs of ankylosing spondylitis on an X-ray taken to diagnose an altogether different medical issue.
The more you know about AS, the better equipped you’ll be to live with the condition. Busting these myths is one way to do that.