What Causes Pain and Stiffness with Ankylosing Spondylitis?

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Key points:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis pain is caused by inflammation
  • Inflammation occurs when your immune system tries to attack an ‘invader’
  • Fluid builds up in the tissues causing joint linings to swell. This impacts nerves and can cause acute pain and stiffness
  • Over time scar tissue forms, calcifies and turns into bone tissue. This new bone tissue can sometimes fuse spinal bones together
  • This fusing can lead to ‘bamboo spine’ and mobility issues

Inflammation is arguably THE most important term when it comes to ankylosing spondylitis.

That pain patients experience is an inflammation of the joints (particularly in the lower spine).

This can cause severe stiffness and at times crippling pain.

What do we mean by inflammation?

Inflammation occurs when the immune system is triggered and goes into defence mode.

Typically this happens if you are fighting off an invader such as a bacterial infection or virus. Your body rallies the troops to fight off the attack.

However with some autoimmune diseases, like ankylosing spondylitis, it can manifest as mysterious overreaction to certain stimuli…

The body appears to attack itself, seemingly in an act of friendly fire.

(I believe there’s evidence to suggest that these immune responses are, in part, reactions to certain ‘new’ foods found in the modern, Western diet. People with particular genetic make-ups may not have not evolved to process these foods and this, combined with erosion of the gut lining over several years, exacerbates the problem).

When inflammation occurs, white blood cells race to the target and fluid builds up in the tissues causing the joint lining to swell.

This swelling can then impact on the nerves and cause pain.

And it doesn’t stop there…

Over time this swelling and repeated impact on the joints can cause loss of cartilage and even bone fusing.

This can lead to an increase in pain and further complications.

Ankylosing spondylitis, bone fusing and bamboo spine

We’ve talked about how inflammation can cause stiffness, pain and restrict movement.

But it doesn’t end there.

As the inflammation dies down the body goes into repair mode and builds scar tissue in the effected area.

This scar tissue can calcify, over time, and turn into bone tissue.

And this is where more problems can arise…

The newly formed bone tissue can fuse with bones in the surrounding area.

This is often in the sacroiliac joint but this can take place anywhere on the spine.

As a result patients can lose significant joint flexibility.

This is why people with ankylosing spondylitis can sometimes have what’s called ‘bamboo spine’.

This is where many, or all, of the spinal backbones have fused together giving the patient a rod like, stiff back with limited flexibility.

What you can do to alleviate these symptoms

This is no cure for bone fusion or ankylosing spondylitis… yet.

However, there are some wonderful treatments and protocols that can, depending on the individual, significantly reduce symptoms and alleviate pain.

In fact some people, even with advanced bone fusion, have reported a near 90 – 100% reduction in pain.

Through healthy, tailored lifestyle changes they have managed to turn the table on their ankylosing spondylitis and lead a happy and active life.

If you think you or your loved one might have ankylosing spondylitis please don’t delay in getting it checked out.

Talk to your GP, explain your symptoms, how long they have been going on and ask them to get the ball rolling.

Insist on the blood test for the HLA-B27 gene and also a blood test which shows the inflammatory markets ESR and CRP.

These are quick, easy and relatively inexpensive for healthcare providers to organise.

If they do find anything they want to examine further they can then put you forward for X-Rays and an MRI scan.

Typically an MRI scan is the final piece of the puzzle that rheumatologists use to diagnose ankylosing spondylitis.

One things is clear.

The earlier you can catch ankylosing spondylitis the better.

Some of these measures could help prevent bone fusion – and the complications this can bring – from occurring in the first place.

Finding out you have ankylosing spondylitis might sound like a curse but for most patients, many of whom have gone several years or even decades without diagnosis, it can be a huge relief.

Next steps

This website was created to help guide you gently through the process.

The first step in getting a handle on AS is to read about the current treatments on offer.

What they mean, what they target and how they work. You can find more info on that here.

The next thing is to read up on the latest research. What the studies show and what you doctor is able to absorb of cover (in their stressful and busy roles seeing hundreds of patients) is just the tip of the iceberg.

Take a look at some of the latest research into ankylosing spondylitis and autoimmune disorders here.

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