For those familiar with ankylosing spondylitis, the first association that comes to mind is probably the spine – the primary area the condition affects. But AS is complex and can affect many parts of your body, including additional health conditions and complications.
AS doesn’t follow a set course. The severity of symptoms and development of complications vary widely from person to person – even family members can experience them differently. While some may only experience minor back discomfort that comes and goes, others may encounter severe pain, even in areas outside of the spine – in the shoulders, ribs, hips, knees and feet.
That said, everyone with AS has some increased risk for complications and there are some complications that are more common than others. For example, eye inflammation is very common, while organ problems are rare, and breathing issues run somewhere in the middle.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of the complications that can affect someone with AS, along with important tips on what you can do to help avoid them.
AS Complications You Should Know About
Eye Inflammation. Occurring at least once in about 40 percent of people with AS, eye inflammation is one of the most common complications of this condition. See your doctor immediately if you experience eye pain, blurred vision and light sensitivity.
Spinal Fractures. Over time, as part of the body’s healing and repair process, this chronic inflammation can sometimes cause new bone to form, essentially fusing some of the vertebrae of the spine together. This can lead to curvature of the spine, and a stooped posture, restricting movement. Because this new bone growth is weak, there’s a greater risk of spinal fracture and possibly damage to the spinal cord and its nerves. However, this is less common today, due to advances in treatment.
Trouble Breathing. Sometimes long-term inflammation and scarring can fuse the joints between the ribs and spine, making it hard to fully expand your lungs and chest as you inhale. Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend deep breathing exercises.
Organ Problems. Rarely, a few people who have had AS for many years may encounter serious problems in the heart, lungs or kidneys. AS can cause inflammation and swelling in the aorta – the main artery in your heart – essentially weakening your heart.
As mentioned above, fused bones in the rib cage can reduce lung function, making it difficult to breathe. Long-term treatment with NSIDs and other medicines can result in kidney problems for some people.
The Spondylitis Association of America has a complete list of AS complications and more information.
Top 5 Tips to Avoid AS Complications
Fortunately there’s plenty you can do to help yourself. Here are five important proactive steps you can take avoid complications and possibly even slow or stop progression of this condition:
See your doctor regularly. Follow your doctor’s treatment plan. Even if you only have mild AS symptoms, it’s important to check in with your rheumatologist at least once a year to catch and treat any potentially harmful complications.
Quit smoking. Smoking is especially detrimental to someone with AS. It can make it even harder to breathe, especially in severe cases where the rib cage already has limited movement. In fact, a recent study by the NIAMS shows that smokers are four times more likely to sustain severe joint damage than non-smokers.
Practice healthy posture habits. Having a straight posture will go a long way towards preventing some of the complications that go along with AS. Practice good posture habits all the time, whether you’re sitting, standing or walking.
Exercise daily. Staying active is one of the best things you can do to relieve pain, improve your posture and keep your joints flexible. Plus, it can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce unnecessary stress on your affected joints. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to help you design an exercise plan that will meet your needs.
Eat healthy. There’s no specific diet for AS, but eating nutritious foods will help you stay at a healthy weight and cut back on strain to painful joints. In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids like those found in coldwater fish, flax seeds and walnuts, help to ease joint inflammation. These fatty acids haven’t been studied as much in people with AS, but there is some indication that omega-3 supplements may slow its development.