Beyond Back Pain: 5 Warning Signs of Ankylosing Spondylitis

Is it just a sore back — or is it something else?

Back pain is a top medical complaint. It’s also a leading cause of missed work. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, virtually all adults will seek attention for back pain at some point in their lives. The American Chiropractic Association reports that Americans spend about $50 billion a year on treating back pain.

There are many possible causes of low back pain. Usually it’s caused by trauma from a sudden strain on the spine. But you should be aware that back pain can also signal a more serious condition called ankylosing spondylitis.

What is ankylosing spondylitis?

Unlike ordinary back pain, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is not caused by physical trauma to the spine. Rather, it’s a chronic condition caused by inflammation in the vertebrae (the bones of the spine). AS is a form of spinal arthritis.

The most common symptoms are intermittent flare-ups of spinal pain and stiffness. However, the disease can also affect other joints, as well as the eyes and the intestines. In advanced AS, abnormal bone growth in the vertebrae may cause joints to fuse. This can severely reduce mobility. People with AS may also experience vision problems, or inflammation in other joints, such as the knees and ankles.

What are the warning signs?

Sign #1: You have unexplained pain in the lower back.

Typical back pain often feels better after rest. AS is the opposite. Pain and stiffness are usually worse upon waking. While exercise may make ordinary back pain worse, AS symptoms may actually feel better after exercise.

Lower back pain for no apparent reason is not typical in young people. Teens and young adults who complain of stiffness or pain in the lower back or hips should be evaluated for AS by a doctor. Pain is often located in the sacroiliac joints, where the pelvis and spine meet.

Sign #2: You have a family history of AS.

People with certain genetic markers are susceptible to AS. But not all people who have the genes develop the disease, for reasons that remain unclear. If you have a relative with either AS, psoriatic arthritis, or arthritis related to inflammatory bowel disease, you may have inherited genes that put you at greater risk for AS.

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