Ankylosing spondylitis is a disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in the spine, causing inflammation, pain, and joint damage. As the disease progresses, joints can become so damaged that they cause ankylosis — formation of new bone. This fuses the joints together and limits movement. Ankylosing spondylitis is also referred to as radiographic axial spondyloarthritis or radiographic axSpA.
Treatment goals for ankylosing spondylitis include relieving symptoms, maintaining or improving physical function, minimizing the complications of AS, and slowing the progression of the disease. The right treatment for you will depend on your symptoms and other signs of your condition. Throughout your journey with AS, you may need to switch from the initial medications your doctor prescribed to advanced treatments.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are the first line of treatment for ankylosing spondylitis symptoms like back pain. NSAIDs include common over-the-counter medications, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen), as well as prescription drugs like Indocin (indomethacin) and Voltaren (diclofenac). NSAIDs treat pain and reduce inflammation.
People with AS are sometimes prescribed corticosteroids to relieve inflammation, but long-term use of corticosteroids is not recommended. Older disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate and sulfasalazine are sometimes prescribed to treat AS, although these drugs are generally not a preferred option.
NSAIDs aren’t always enough to manage symptoms and keep ankylosing spondylitis from progressing. If that’s the case, your doctor may recommend more advanced treatments. Advanced treatments for ankylosing spondylitis usually include newer classes of drugs, such as biologics or JAK inhibitors. Talk to your doctor if your current treatment plan is not sufficiently controlling your pain and other symptoms. Your doctor can help you understand if it’s time to switch ankylosing spondylitis treatments.
Biologic drugs work to reduce inflammation and slow the progression of ankylosing spondylitis. Biologic drugs for AS and other forms of inflammatory arthritis may also be referred to as biologic DMARDs. They use bioengineered molecules to target specific aspects of the immune system that cause inflammation.
The most common biologic treatment for ankylosing spondylitis is the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) alpha inhibitor. TNF-alpha inhibitors block a chemical in the body called tumor necrosis factor, which causes inflammation. Taking a TNF-alpha inhibitor reduces the inflammation caused by ankylosing spondylitis and halts disease activity, slowing the progress of joint damage and other symptoms of AS.
TNF-alpha inhibitors include Enbrel (etanercept), Humira (adalimumab), Remicade (infliximab), Simponi (golimumab), and Cimzia (certolizumab pegol). These drugs are administered either through self-injection or through injections given in a health care provider’s office. The injections are usually taken every few weeks. Side effects of TNF-alpha inhibitors include an increased risk of infection, skin reactions near the site of the injection, and rare neurological complications.
Because of the increased risk of infection, people who want to take TNF-alpha inhibitors should be tested for tuberculosis before starting the medication. In addition, people with multiple sclerosis or significant heart failure should not use TNF inhibitors.
Like TNF-alpha inhibitors, interleukin (IL) inhibitors treat ankylosing spondylitis by blocking a chemical that causes inflammation. IL-17 inhibitors include Cosentyx (secukinumab) and Taltz (ixekizumab). IL-17 inhibitors have similar side effects as TNF inhibitors, and they also can cause or exacerbate inflammatory bowel disease. Interleukin inhibitors are taken as injections.
A Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor may be an option if biologic drugs don’t work for you, or have stopped working. JAK inhibitors are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat rheumatoid arthritis and certain other conditions. Recent studies found them useful in treating ankylosing spondylitis symptoms and slowing the progression of the disease. Unlike biologic drugs that are injected, JAK inhibitors are taken orally.
Janus kinases are proteins that act as signals from cells to other proteins. There are three types of Janus kinases: JAK1, JAK2, and JAK3. Janus kinases respond to cytokines, small proteins involved in cell signaling. When cytokines attach to a cell, JAK proteins “turn on” and tell cells to make more cytokines, producing inflammation. Normally, this inflammation is actually healthy — it’s used to kill harmful viruses and bacteria. However, if you have ankylosing spondylitis, JAK signaling doesn’t shut off when it should.
JAK inhibitors are small, lab-designed molecules designed to “turn off” the JAK signaling that produces inflammatory chemicals. Because they target very specific proteins, JAK inhibitors may be easier to tolerate than TNF-alpha inhibitors.
Xeljanz (tofacitinib) and Rinvoq (upadacitinib) are JAK inhibitors that have been studied as treatments for ankylosing spondylitis. In a 2020 study of 269 people with ankylosing spondylitis, 41 percent of people taking tofacitinib for 16 weeks showed significantly improved inflammation and pain levels, compared to only 13 percent of people taking a placebo. A clinical trial of 187 people taking upadacitinib showed that 52 percent of people with ankylosing spondylitis had improvements in inflammation and pain.
Xeljanz targets all three JAK proteins, while Rinvoq inhibits the JAK1 protein.
Like TNF-alpha inhibitors, JAK inhibitors can raise your risk of infection and your risk for certain cancers. In addition, JAK inhibitors also can be a risk factor for blood clots.
When other treatments do not relieve severe ankylosing spondylitis symptoms, spinal surgery may be appropriate. Advanced symptoms of AS that may require surgery include kyphosis (curvature of the spine), neuropathy, spinal instability, and severe hip involvement.
Read more about surgery for ankylosing spondylitis.
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