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Early Signs and Symptoms of Spondyloarthritis

Updated on July 22, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Diane M. Horowitz, M.D.
Article written by
Annie Keller

  • Early symptoms of spondyloarthritis are often overlooked, and it can take time to receive the correct diagnosis.
  • Not all spondyloarthritis symptoms involve joint pain. Fatigue, eye inflammation, swelling in the fingers and toes, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can also occur.
  • Recognizing potential symptoms of spondyloarthritis can help you better communicate with your doctor, work toward a diagnosis, and find effective treatment

Spondyloarthritis is the most overlooked cause of chronic back pain among young adults. Spondyloarthritis isn’t always diagnosed right away. In fact, some people may go for years without a diagnosis. One study found that it took an average of two to five years from the onset of symptoms to a diagnosis of spondyloarthritis. Since the right treatment can’t always be started without a diagnosis, it’s important to know the symptoms so spondyloarthritis can be recognized as soon as possible.

The Spondylitis Association of America lists several different varieties of spondyloarthritis, including two broad categories that reflect the current classification system:

  • Nonradiographic axial spondyloarthritis, when inflammation of the spine and hips is not visible in X-rays
  • Radiographic axial spondyloarthritis (also known as ankylosing spondylitis), when inflammation is visible in X-rays

There are also several older classifications, which it may be helpful to know:

  • Psoriatic arthritis, which is often accompanied by the skin disease psoriasis
  • Reactive arthritis, which usually develops after an infection
  • Enteropathic arthritis, which occurs with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Undifferentiated spondyloarthritis, which doesn’t fit into other categories

Regardless of how a case of spondyloarthritis is eventually classified, initial symptoms in the early stages can be very similar. Here are some of the early symptoms most common among people who are eventually diagnosed with spondyloarthritis. If you recognize these symptoms, it is important to report them to your health care provider or rheumatologist.

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Lower Back Pain

By far, the most common early symptom of spondyloarthritis is lower back pain. “The pain in my spine and hips have caused me to hurt never-ending,” one MySpondylitisTeam member said.

A 2009 study published in Rheumatology found that 72 percent of those who would later receive an ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis reported back pain as their first symptom. Since back pain is a common complaint among the general population — it’s estimated up to 80 percent of people will experience low back pain at some point — it can be difficult to distinguish between spondyloarthritis-induced back pain versus some other form.

Back pain in spondyloarthritis is a specific type called inflammatory back pain. Several aspects of inflammatory back pain distinguish it from other kinds.

  • Age of onset — Inflammatory back pain usually begins before age 35. In contrast, other forms of low back pain usually begin between ages 30 and 50.
  • Effect of exercise — Inflammatory back pain often improves with exercise or physical activity and becomes worse with long periods of immobility. In contrast, mechanical back pain caused by straining muscles eases with rest and worsens with activity.
  • Duration — Symptoms are chronic, lasting at least three months or more.
  • Time of day — Pain is often worse upon awakening in the morning, and may be accompanied by stiffness.
  • The effect of NSAIDs — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen (Aleve), are effective in reducing or eliminating inflammatory back pain.

Other Joint Symptoms

While inflammatory back pain is the hallmark of spondyloarthritis, pain in other joints can also occur.

Sacroiliac Joint Syndrome

Sacroiliac joint syndrome (SI joint syndrome or sacroiliitis) is a form of pain that affects the buttocks and the surrounding area, such as the thighs. Buttock pain may also cause difficulty sitting for long periods of time. In the 2009 study in Rheumatology, 46 percent of people with ankylosing spondylitis reported SI joint syndrome as their first symptom.

Peripheral Arthritis

In the 2009 Rheumatology study, peripheral arthritis in the joints of the arms and legs was reported by 67 percent of people as an early symptom. Of those, 38 percent reported that peripheral arthritis started in the upper limbs, while 29 percent reported it starting in the lower limbs.

Neck Pain

Neck pain is a less common symptom. In the 2009 study, between 6 percent and 11 percent of people with ankylosing spondylitis reported it as an early symptom.

Symptoms Beyond the Joints

While back pain indicates to many people they may have a musculoskeletal issue, other early symptoms associated with spondyloarthritis may affect parts of the body outside the joints — or affect the body as a whole.

Fatigue

While fatigue is a symptom of many conditions, it occurs with some frequency among those who will later be diagnosed with spondyloarthritis. Fatigue may be a direct result of spondyloarthritis inflammation or it can be a consequence of poor sleep due to pain — sometimes referred to by MySpondylitisTeam members as “painsomnia.”

One member wrote, “Fatigue is definitely a big problem for me. I seem to pay for every good day with days of fatigue, or even bad and stressful days with overwhelming fatigue. I have slept entire afternoons away.”

Watch rheumatologist Dr. Ashira Blazer talk about meditation techniques that can help ease spondylitis symptoms.

Psoriasis

Psoriatic arthritis is a subset of spondyloarthritis, but psoriasis and other skin diseases themselves can also be a first symptom, especially skin and nail changes. Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the skin.

Enthesitis

Enthesitis is pain where tendons or ligaments and bone meet. It is especially common at the back of the heels. In the 2009 Rheumatology study, enthesitis was reported as an early symptom in 10 percent to 28 percent of those with spondyloarthritis.

Dactylitis

Dactylitis, or swelling in the fingers and toes, is sometimes called “sausage fingers.” The swelling is not confined to one joint of the digit. Rather, it usually affects the entire finger or toe. Swelling is usually worse in the middle of the digit. The digit is usually reddened and hot to the touch. Between 7 percent and 10 percent of people with spondyloarthritis reported dactylitis as an early symptom in the 2009 study.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the intestinal tract. The two types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Pain, bloating, and other symptoms focused around the digestive tract are typical first symptoms of IBD. Between 17 percent and 39 percent of people with IBD also develop spondyloarthritis. When the two occur together, the condition may be referred to as IBD-associated spondyloarthritis or enteropathic arthritis.

Uveitis

Inflammation in spondyloarthritis can also affect the eyes, a condition known as uveitis. The 2009 study in Rheumatology reported 7 percent of those with undifferentiated spondyloarthritis and 9 percent of those with ankylosing spondylitis had uveitis.

“I do have problems with my eyes also. It’s terrible. [It] feels like I have dirt in my eye or something,” said one MySpondylitisTeam member.

The most common symptom of uveitis is redness and pain in the eyes, but vision deficits and sensitivity to light are also possible. Inflammation of the iris itself is a variation called iritis. Eye inflammation can be a constant symptom, or it can recede and reoccur over time.

Chest Pain

In people with spondyloarthritis, chest pain can be caused by inflammation of cartilage in the chest, known as costochondritis. One MySpondylitisTeam member described chest pain as feeling like “a huge vise grip that has me around the ribs.”

Cognitive Changes

Cognitive changes, such as difficulty thinking, remembering, and communicating, are commonly reported symptoms in inflammatory conditions like spondyloarthritis. Some MySpondylitisTeam members describe this feeling as “brain fog.” As one member wrote, “I can be looking right at something and forget the word for it.”

Monitoring Your Condition

If you have had low back pain for three months or longer, especially if it started before age 45, there’s a chance it could be spondyloarthritis. If you also experience any of the other symptoms described above, or have a family medical history of inflammatory diseases, these factors may make a diagnosis of spondyloarthritis more likely.

There is no one definitive test for spondyloarthritis. In some people with spondyloarthritis, blood tests show high levels of inflammation. In others, these tests may show normal results. Similarly, many people with spondyloarthritis test positive for a protein known as HLA-B27 that is linked with a higher risk for inflammatory conditions, but others test negative.

When spondyloarthritis is suspected, imaging scans are usually performed. X-rays are capable of showing inflammation when the disease has been active for six to 10 years. Scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may identify inflammation earlier, but a negative MRI scan doesn’t rule out the possibility that someone has spondyloarthritis.

Connect With Others

Living with spondyloarthritis can be a challenge, but once diagnosed, you can work with your rheumatologist to find effective treatment options and manage symptoms. When you join MySpondylitisTeam, you gain a support network of more than 85,000 people who experience similar symptoms and have traveled the path toward a diagnosis of spondyloarthritis.

References
  1. Early Recognition and Treatment of Spondyloarthritis: A Timeless Challenge — EMJ Rheumatology
  2. Overview of Types of Spondylitis — Spondylitis Association of America
  3. First Signs and Symptoms of Spondyloarthritis — Data From an Inception Cohort With a Disease Course of Two Years or Less — Rheumatology (Oxford)
  4. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet — National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  5. The Rising Prevalence of Chronic Low Back Pain — Archives of Internal Medicine
  6. Inflammatory vs. Mechanical Back Pain — Spondylitis Association of America
  7. Spondyloarthritis: Clinical Suspicion, Diagnosis, and Sports — Current Sports Medicine Reports
  8. Sacroiliac Joint Syndrome — Hudson Medical
  9. Fatigue in Spondyloarthritis: Identifying and Addressing Causes — Spondylitis Association of America
  10. Spondyloarthritis — Columbia University Irving Medical Center
  11. Spondyloarthritis — Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  12. What Is Dactylitis? The ‘Sausage Finger’ Swelling You Should Know About — CreakyJoints
  13. Inflammatory Bowel Disease — Arthritis Foundation
  14. Inflammatory Bowel Diseases and Spondyloarthropathies — The Journal of Rheumatology
  15. The Spondyloarthritis Family — Arthritis Foundation
  16. Iritis or Anterior Uveitis — Spondylitis Association of America
  17. Does Ankylosing Spondylitis Cause Chest Pain? — AnkylosingSpondylitis.net
  18. A Multi-Modal MRI Study of the Central Response to Inflammation in Rheumatoid Arthritis — Nature Communications
  19. Special Article: Axial Spondyloarthritis Classification Criteria — The Debate Continues — Current Opinion in Rheumatology
  20. Diagnosing axSpA and AS in Primary Care — Rheumatology Network
  21. Spondyloarthritis — American College of Rheumatology
  22. Non-Radiographic Axial Spondyloarthritis: What Is It, and How Is It Treated? — CreakyJoints
  23. Psoriatic Arthritis — American College of Rheumatology
  24. Symptoms of Undifferentiated Spondyloarthritis — Spondylitis Association of America
  25. Axial Spondyloarthritis Defined — AJMC
  26. Overview of Spondyloarthritis — Spondylitis Association of America
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Diane M. Horowitz, M.D. is an internal medicine and rheumatology specialist. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Annie Keller specializes in writing about medicine, medical devices, and biotech. Learn more about her here.

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