Six years ago when Valerie Spies, stylist at Z Salon & Spa, began experiencing neck pain, lower back pain, and fatigue, she went to the doctor expecting to be told she needed physical therapy. “It was very discouraging,” Valerie says. “He spent exactly 10 minutes with me and concluded that I needed to find another job. I went home resigned to the fact that I’d always have this terrible pain. I was so depressed.”
A month later at the suggestion of her parents, Valerie went to visit her father’s doctor, who spent two hours doing a full workup on her. This included blood work and X-rays. “He told me if this was caused by my profession, he’d have a lot more stylists for clients. Instead, he diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis. My dad has this. I don’t know why I never thought about having it, too. It’s hereditary.”
Although the name makes it sound otherwise, ankylosing spondylitis (also known as Bechterew’s disease) is a common form of arthritis that causes inflammation of the spinal joints (vertebrae) that can lead to severe, chronic pain. The most common early symptoms of AS are frequent pain and stiffness in the lower back, which begins gradually, often only on one side of the body. The pain is usually diffused and dull and is worse in the morning and during the night.
Ankylosing spondylitis can lead to ankylosis, which is new bone formation in the spine causing sections of the spine to fuse into an immobile position. This is why it’s important to visit your doctor at the first sign of symptoms. Valerie says, “My father’s case was not caught early on, so his progressed to the point that he doesn’t have full movement of his neck. Luckily, my diagnosis came when my AS was in the early stages, so I do not have any damage.”
The goal for treatment of AS is to relieve pain and stiffness and to delay and/or prevent complications and spinal deformity. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — such as naproxen (Naprosyn) and indomethacin (Indocin) — are the medications doctors most commonly use to treat ankylosing spondylitis. They help to ease the inflammation and subsequent pain and stiffness.
“My doctor started me with a biologic,” Valerie says. Biologics are protein-based medications that are made from living sources and taken by injection. “He wanted me to take Enbrel, but that wasn’t covered by my insurance. Now I take Humira and it’s helped tremendously. I use the injector pen that is new, and it doesn’t sting like the old shots did.”
In addition to medication, doctor’s prescribe range-of-motion and stretching exercises to help maintain joint flexibility and good posture. “My doctor gave me a whole chart of exercises and stretches, which are essentially yoga poses, so I just started going to 502 Power Yoga three to five times per week,” Valerie says. “I have to keep my body mechanics in check, especially at work, so I stay active and pay attention to my posture a lot. The more you move, the looser your body gets, so I try not to stay in one position or seated for long periods of time.”
Valerie says, “The main thing for me is that the AS is always present, so I try to be kind to myself. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not a hypochondriac. It can and often will affect any of my joints at any given time.”
The Mayo Clinic advises, “The course of your condition can change over time, and you might have painful episodes (relapses) and periods of less pain (remissions) throughout your life. But most people are able to live productive lives despite a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis. Besides seeing your doctor regularly and taking your medications as prescribed, The Mayo Clinic website lists the following things you can do to help your condition:
- Stay active. Exercise can help ease pain, maintain flexibility and improve your posture.
- Apply heat and cold. Heat applied to stiff joints and tight muscles can ease pain and stiffness. Try heating pads and hot baths and showers. Ice on inflamed areas can help reduce swelling.
- Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Smoking is generally bad for your health, but it creates additional problems for people with ankylosing spondylitis, including further hampering breathing.
- Practice good posture. Practicing standing straight in front of a mirror can help you avoid some of the problems associated with ankylosing spondylitis.
BY BOBBE ANN CROUCH