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5 Facts About Spondylitis That Aren’t Well Known

Posted on November 22, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Rebeca Schiller

If you or a loved one is living with spondylitis, you’ve probably spent a lot of time researching it to understand the essential information about its causes, symptoms, and progression. But even the most thorough researchers may not have every fact about spondylitis because the condition varies from person to person.

Learning these five facts about spondylitis can deepen your understanding of the condition. Ultimately, more knowledge can empower you to self-advocate as you travel along your spondylitis journey.

Fact 1: Spondylitis Can Also Affect Other Body Parts, Including the Heart

Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease and a form of arthritis that leads to chronic inflammation in the spine and sacroiliac joints (which connect the pelvis and lower spine). About 1 percent of American adults may be affected by spondylitis.

The disease primarily affects the axial skeleton (the bones along the body’s long axis) but can also affect other parts of the body, including:

  • Heart
  • Eyes
  • Knees
  • Lungs
  • Shoulders
  • Hips
  • Ankles

Typical symptoms of spondylitis include difficulty breathing, fatigue, vision problems, skin rash, joint pain, and stiffness and pain around the spine and lower back region. As the condition progresses, it may lead to the complete fusion of the spine caused by calcification (hardening, due to calcium buildup) of the ligaments and discs between the vertebrae.

Ankylosing spondylitis is linked to several cardiovascular diseases, including cardiomyopathy, ischemic heart disease, aortic valve disease, and aortitis. These cardiac-related issues are present in approximately 2 percent to 10 percent of people with the disease. According to researchers in Canada, spondylitis increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 25 percent to 60 percent. Researchers say the link between heart disease and spondylitis may be due to intake of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), chronic inflammation, and lack of exercise because of joint pain or joint damage.

Some people with spondylitis may experience costochondritis, and the symptoms of that condition may feel like chest pain caused by an acute heart attack. Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs and the breastbone. The condition can be painful after exercise or coughing, but in time, it typically fades away on its own.

Fact 2: Spondylitis May Cause a Stooped Appearance

One symptom that can be associated with spondylitis is kyphosis (stooped posture), which can affect the upper neck, causing the spine to curve forward. In some cases, because of chronic inflammation, new bone formation can develop in the spine, which may cause areas of the spine to fuse and lose mobility. If a curved spine fuses, it could be a factor in a stooped appearance.

Although mild kyphosis may not cause any symptoms, some people may experience stiffness and pain. Complications from kyphosis may include breathing problems caused by pressure on the lungs or digestive issues due to digestive tract pressure, including acid reflux and swallowing difficulties. Your rheumatologist will work with you to prevent stooped posture.

Fact 3: Spondylitis May Be Associated With Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Recent research shows a strong association between existing spondylitis and increased levels of inflammation in the gut. In one study of 204 people with spondylitis, researchers discovered that an increased level of calprotectin (a protein) in the stool was considered a powerful predictor of developing Crohn’s disease within five years.

Although more research is needed to predict the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in people with spondylitis, approximately 10 percent of people with the condition develop some form of IBD within 20 years of their spondylitis diagnosis, and 60 percent of people with the condition show some gut inflammation, even in the absence of gut symptoms.

Fact 4: Smoking Can Exacerbate Spondylitis

Studies show that people with spondylitis who smoke typically have an earlier onset of the condition and that smokers have more aggressive spinal damage. In addition, smokers with spondylitis also report mood swings and a poorer quality of life.

There is hope to slow down the progression of spondylitis by quitting smoking. A 2017 study found that people with spondylitis who quit smoking had a better quality of life than current smokers and experienced reduced levels of disease activity.

Fact 5: Men Are at Greater Risk for Developing Ankylosing Spondylitis

Spondylitis is two to three times more common in men than women. Researchers have found that inflammatory markers in men and women may differ. One study discovered that men with spondylitis have higher inflammatory markers in their blood. Research has also shown that men have more severe cases that include erosive damage to the joints and more advanced joint fusion. However, women report more pain and limitations with their range of motion.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MySpondylitisTeam is the social network for people with spondylitis. On MySpondylitisTeam, more than 72,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with spondylitis.

What spondylitis facts do you find the most compelling? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

A MySpondylitisTeam Member said:

these all hold true for me also....I found out what I had after I fell off a 6 foot ladder backwards...I had always hurt but it set my body really off....has been a nightmare for the last 5… read more

posted 4 days ago

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Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Rebeca Schiller is a health writer. Her articles have appeared in NewsDay’s Healthlink, Livestrong, and VeryWell Health. Learn more about her here.

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