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Ankylosing Spondylitis

You are never alone in this fight; there is always hope and support around you.

Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) is a chronic inflammatory disease that primarily affects the spine and sacroiliac joints, causing severe pain and stiffness. This condition, often considered invisible due to the lack of external symptoms, affects millions worldwide, including many Australians. Understanding AS, its symptoms, diagnosis, and management is crucial for those affected and their support networks.


What is Ankylosing Spondylitis?

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in the spine and the joints between the spine and pelvis (sacroiliac joints). Over time, this inflammation can lead to the fusion of the vertebrae, resulting in a loss of flexibility and a hunched posture. The term "ankylosing" means fusion, and "spondylitis" refers to inflammation of the vertebrae.


Symptoms and Early Signs

AS often begins in early adulthood, typically between ages 17 and 45. Early symptoms may be subtle and easily mistaken for other conditions, leading to delays in diagnosis. Common symptoms include:

  • Lower Back Pain and Stiffness: Often worse in the morning or after periods of inactivity.

  • Pain in the Buttocks or Hips: Due to the involvement of the sacroiliac joints.

  • Fatigue: A common symptom due to chronic inflammation.

  • Neck Pain and Stiffness: As the disease progresses.


In some cases, AS can also affect other parts of the body, leading to:

  • Inflammation of the Eyes (Uveitis): Causing pain, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision.

  • Inflammation of the Tendons and Ligaments: Leading to pain and swelling in areas such as the heels (Achilles tendonitis).

  • Reduced Lung Function: Due to the involvement of the joints between the ribs and spine.


Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of AS remains unknown, but genetic factors play a significant role. The HLA-B27 gene is strongly associated with the disease, though not everyone with this gene will develop AS. Other factors that may contribute include:

  • Family History: Having a close relative with AS increases the risk.

  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop AS than women.

  • Age: AS typically begins in early adulthood.



Diagnosing AS can be challenging due to its subtle onset and overlapping symptoms with other conditions. A thorough medical history, physical examination, and specific tests are essential for an accurate diagnosis. These may include:

  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, MRI, or CT scans to detect changes in the sacroiliac joints and spine.

  • Blood Tests: To check for inflammation markers and the presence of the HLA-B27 gene.

  • Physical Examination: Assessing flexibility and tenderness in the spine and other affected areas.


Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Managing AS involves a comprehensive approach tailored to the individual’s symptoms and disease progression. While there is no cure, various treatments can help manage pain, reduce inflammation, and improve quality of life.



  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): Commonly used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

  • Biologic Medications: Such as TNF inhibitors and IL-17 inhibitors, which target specific pathways in the inflammatory process.

  • Corticosteroids: May be used for short-term relief during flare-ups.


Physical Therapy and Exercise

Regular physical activity is crucial for maintaining flexibility and posture. A tailored exercise program can help strengthen the muscles around the spine, improve range of motion, and reduce stiffness. Physical therapists can provide specific exercises and techniques, including:

  • Stretching and Strengthening Exercises: To improve flexibility and support the spine.

  • Postural Training: To maintain an upright posture and prevent hunching.

  • Breathing Exercises: To enhance lung capacity and function.


Lifestyle and Self-Care

Adopting a healthy lifestyle can significantly impact the management of AS. Key recommendations include:

  • Healthy Diet: A balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can support overall health.

  • Quit Smoking: Smoking can exacerbate symptoms and reduce lung function.

  • Stress Management: Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help manage stress and reduce pain.


Support and Resources

Living with AS can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. Support from healthcare professionals, family, and support groups is vital. Organisations such as Invisible Illnesses Inc. offer resources, support groups, and educational workshops to help individuals manage their condition and connect with others facing similar challenges.


Research and Future Directions

Ongoing research into the causes and treatment of AS holds promise for better management and potential new therapies. Advances in biologic medications and a better understanding of the genetic and environmental factors involved in AS may lead to improved outcomes for those affected.



Ankylosing Spondylitis is a complex and often misunderstood condition. While it poses significant challenges, early diagnosis, comprehensive treatment, and a supportive network can make a profound difference in the lives of those affected. Raising awareness about AS and advocating for better resources and research are essential steps towards improving the quality of life for individuals living with this invisible illness.


For more information and support, get in touch

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