The symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis are related to inflammation of the spine, joints, and other organs. Fatigue is a common symptom associated with active inflammation. Inflammation of the spine causes pain and stiffness in the low back, upper buttock area, neck, and the remainder of the spine. The onset of pain and stiffness is usually gradual and progressively worsens over months. Occasionally, the onset is rapid and intense. The symptoms of pain and stiffness are often worse in the morning or after prolonged periods of inactivity. The pain and stiffness are often eased by motion, heat, and a warm shower in the morning. Because ankylosing spondylitis often affects adolescents, the onset of low back pain is sometimes incorrectly attributed to athletic injuries in younger patients.
Those who have chronic, severe inflammation of the spine can develop a complete bony fusion of the spine (ankylosis). Once fused, the pain in the spine disappears, but the affected individual has a complete loss of spine mobility. These fused spines are particularly brittle and vulnerable to breakage (fracture) when involved in trauma such as motor-vehicle accidents. A sudden onset of pain and mobility in the spinal area of these patients can indicate bone breakage. The lower neck (cervical spine) is the most common area for such fractures.
Chronic spondylitis and ankylosis cause forward curvature of the upper torso (thoracic spine), which limits breathing capacity. Spondylitis can also affect the areas where ribs attach to the upper spine, further limiting lung capacity. Ankylosing spondylitis can cause inflammation and scarring of the lungs, causing coughing and shortness of breath, especially with exercise and infections. Therefore, breathing difficulty can be a serious complication of ankylosing spondylitis.
People with ankylosing spondylitis can also have arthritis in joints other than the spine. This feature occurs more commonly in women. Patients may notice pain, stiffness, heat, swelling, warmth, and/or redness in joints such as the hips, knees, and ankles. Occasionally, the small joints of the toes can become inflamed or "sausage" shaped. Inflammation can occur in the cartilage around the breast bone (costochondritis), as well as in the tendons where the muscles attach to the bone (tendinitis) and in ligament attachments to bone.
Some people with this disease develop Achilles tendinitis, causing pain and stiffness in the back of the heel, especially when pushing off with the foot while walking up stairs. Inflammation of the tissues of the bottom of the foot, plantar fasciitis, occurs more frequently in people with ankylosing spondylitis.
Other areas of the body affected by ankylosing spondylitis include the eyes, heart, and kidneys. Patients with ankylosing spondylitis can develop inflammation of the iris (iritis), the colored portion of the eye. Iritis is characterized by redness and pain in the eye, especially when looking at bright lights. Recurrent attacks of iritis can affect either eye. In addition to the iris, the ciliary body and choroid of the eye can become inflamed; this is referred to as uveitis. Iritis and uveitis can be serious complications of ankylosing spondylitis that can damage the eye and impair vision and may require an eye specialist's (ophthalmologist) urgent care. (It should be noted that iritis and inflammation of the spine can occur in other forms of arthritis such as reactive arthritis [formerly known as Reiter's syndrome], psoriatic arthritis, and the arthritis of inflammatory bowel disease.)
A rare complication of ankylosing spondylitis involves scarring of the heart's electrical system, causing an abnormally slow heart rate (referred to as heart block). A heart pacemaker may be necessary in these patients to maintain adequate heart rate and output. In others, the part of the aorta closest to the heart can become inflamed, resulting in leakage of the aortic valve. In this case, patients can develop shortness of breath, dizziness, and heart failure.
Advanced spondylitis can lead to deposits of protein material called amyloid into the kidneys and result in kidney failure. Progressive kidney disease can lead to chronic fatigue and nausea and can require removal of accumulated waste products in the blood by a filtering machine (dialysis).
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