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A common question posed is what is ankylosing spondylitis, or AS? It is a chronic form of arthritis that causes pain and inflammation in the joints and tissues of the back and spine. As well as affecting the lower back, in some cases other parts of the body can be affected. Spondylitis means inflammation of the spine, and ankylosing refers to bones that fuse across a joint.
The symptoms and severity of this condition vary from one person to another. The most common symptom is back pain and stiffness. The buttocks and neck may also be affected. Symptoms often come and go over time, and whilst there is no cure, treatments such as medication, physiotherapy, products that offer back support, exercise and heat pressure may offer some form of relief.
There is no real known cause for AS, although a link has been made to a specific gene called HLA-B27. In 90% of people with AS, they have this gene. Many people, however, have this gene but do not go on to develop the condition, so it is thought that a trigger factor may be involved with those who are genetically predisposed to it. There is also a heredity link, so if a parent or sibling has the condition, your chances may be higher of developing it too.
Symptoms usually develop anywhere between the ages of 15 and 35. AS is three times more common in men than women. Back pain is characteristic in all sufferers of AS, but there may also be inflammation of the joints, tendons or ligaments, as well as stiffness. The hips, knees, shoulders and ankles can also be affected in about 40% of cases. About a third of people with AS develop inflammation of the eye, which can be serious if left untreated.
Back pain from AS tends to feel worse when at rest, especially during the latter half of the night and on waking in the morning. Exercise, movement and back support can make it feel better, and sufferers often remark that symptoms ease as the day goes on. Fatigue, depression, anaemia and weight loss may also occur in people who suffer from this painful arthritic condition. It is also thought that sufferers carry a small increased risk of developing other diseases, such as psoriasis, osteoporosis, ulcerative colitis or cardiovascular problems.
The distinctive spinal pain associated with AS can make it easier for a GP to diagnose this condition. However, other tests are usually carried out to make a confirmed diagnosis. Blood tests, x-rays and MRI or ultrasound scans help to identify inflammation and damage caused to the joints, bones or tissues.
Despite there being no cure for the condition, about 80% of people with AS can remain fully independent or minimally disabled in the long term with the correct course of treatment and management of their back pain symptoms, such as through exercise, back support products or medication. Most of these people can lead a normal life. About one in ten sufferers will become severely affected and may develop deformities or inflexibility of the spine. With new treatments developing all the time, however, there is an increased chance that severely affected sufferers will be able to have an improved quality of life.