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What Is Spondyloarthritis? 7 FAQs Answered

Written by Alison Channon
Updated on October 12, 2023

Spondyloarthritis is a family of inflammatory rheumatic diseases that cause arthritis. The main symptoms are pain and stiffness in the spine (especially the lower back).1 It is relatively common, affecting more people than multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis (in some countries), or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).2 Still, spondyloarthritis remains relatively unknown to many people — even physicians. One in 100 people in the United States has spondyloarthritis, or about 3.2 million people.3

Spondyloarthritis is a progressive disease. Some people may experience new bone formation in the spine or spinal fusion, which can lead to problems with mobility. There is no cure for spondyloarthritis, but symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and fatigue can be managed.1

1. What Are the Different Types of Spondyloarthritis?

Axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA) is a type of spondyloarthritis that mostly affects the spine and sacroiliac joints — a pair of joints in the pelvis.1 There are two progressive stages of axial spondyloarthritis:

  • Nonradiographic axial spondyloarthritis — Damage to the spine or sacroiliac joints is not visible on X-ray, but it can be seen as inflammation on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis (AS, or radiographic axial spondyloarthritis) — Damage of the spine or sacroiliac joints is visible on X-ray.4

      Not all people living with nonradiographic axSpA will progress to radiographic axSpA. However, people affected by either stage may have similar levels of pain, stiffness, and fatigue.4,5

      Peripheral spondyloarthritis (pSpA) is a type of spondyloarthritis that affects the joints in parts of the body other than the spine, such as the arms and legs.1 There are a number of subtypes,6 including:

      • Reactive arthritis (formerly known as Reiter’s syndrome), which arises following an infection7
      • Psoriatic arthritis, which is associated with the skin condition psoriasis
      • Enteropathic arthritis/spondylitis, which is associated with inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease)
      • Undifferentiated spondyloarthritis, which does not meet established definitions for other forms of spondyloarthritis

        2. Are Lower Back Pain and Stiffness Among the Common Symptoms?

        Common symptoms of spondyloarthritis include8:

        • Lower back pain and buttock pain
        • Morning stiffness that improves with exercise but not with rest
        • Fatigue
        • Pain that causes sleep disturbances
        • Reduced mobility

        3. Does Spondyloarthritis Run in Families?

        Spondyloarthritis has a genetic component. Family members of those with spondyloarthritis are at higher risk, depending partly on whether they inherited the HLA-B27 gene.1 Having the HLA-B27 gene does not always mean someone will develop spondyloarthritis. In the end, the diagnosis relies on a rheumatologist’s judgment based on several factors considered together.

        4. How Long Does It Take to Get a Diagnosis?

        Spondyloarthritis often starts in the late teens or mid-20s. It can take between 8 and 11 years to get a correct diagnosis.9 Lower back pain is a symptom for most people with spondyloarthritis, but this type of pain is also extremely common in the general population.1

        Often, back pain is initially managed by primary care physicians until it becomes severe or a doctor determines you have inflammatory back pain. Inflammatory back pain is different from mechanical back pain, which is caused by structural changes in the joints, vertebrae, or tissue and may be caused by an injury.10

        For diagnosis, a rheumatologist may order imaging — including an X-ray or MRI of the spine or sacroiliac joints — to look for signs of inflammation or spinal fusion. A doctor may also order blood tests to check for certain genetic markers or proteins.1 (Take our quiz: Could I Have Spondyloarthritis?)

        5. How Is Spondyloarthritis Managed?

        Living with the chronic back pain of axial spondyloarthritis requires care from a specialist called a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist can help create a treatment plan that may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), conventional synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), biologics, or targeted synthetic DMARDs (like JAK inhibitors).8

        Lifestyle Changes

        Lifestyle changes, such as good posture, exercise, and a nutritious diet, may help improve quality of life for some people with spondyloarthritis. Stopping smoking is crucial because smoking has been shown to increase spinal disease progression, as well as reduce response to treatment.10

        Exercise, including physical therapy and joint-directed exercises, is particularly important for people with axial spondyloarthritis.1 Many recommended exercises promote spinal extension and mobility. Learn more about Spondyloarthritis Exercises for Better Posture.

        The American College of Rheumatology recommends physical therapy for people with ankylosing spondylitis. Active physical therapy with supervised exercises is recommended over massage and similar passive physical therapy. Exercise on land is also preferred over water-based exercise.11

        Visiting a chiropractor for a spinal adjustment is not recommended, especially if you have osteoporosis or your spine is fused.12

        What lifestyle changes have made a difference with your spondyloarthritis? Click here to share your experience in the comments below.


        People with spondyloarthritis may wonder about surgery to treat their condition. Elective spinal surgery is generally not recommended as a treatment. One reason for discouraging elective surgery is the risk associated with the procedure, including the possibility of neurological problems. In a few cases, surgery may be worth the considerable risk. For example, surgery to correct spinal deformities may be appropriate for people whose deformity is so severe that they cannot look straight ahead.13

        Other surgeries on the joints may be appropriate. Surgery may be recommended for people whose hips are significantly affected. In this case, a total hip replacement may be appropriate.11

        6. Which Joints Does Peripheral Spondyloarthritis Affect?

        Inflammatory back pain, such as that experienced with axSpA, is also possible in people with pSpA, but it is generally not the key symptom. Common symptoms of pSpA include14:

        • Enthesitis — This inflammation where ligaments and tendons connect to bones often presents as swelling at the heels. It can cause pain and tenderness.
        • Dactylitis — Also known “sausage toe” or “sausage finger,” this is severe inflammation of tissues in the fingers or toes. While it is uncommon, it is a characteristic feature of pSpA and is often associated with psoriatic arthritis.
        • Peripheral arthritis in the arms and legs — In pSpA, peripheral arthritis usually affects the lower limbs and is asymmetrical, meaning it affects only one side of the body.

          Additionally, people with pSpA may have one or more of the following:

          • Damage on sacroiliac joints (in the pelvis) visible on X-ray
          • Past history of back pain
          • Family history of spondyloarthritis or having the HLA-B27 gene, which is associated with spondyloarthritis

          People with pSpA may also have conditions that don’t involve the peripheral joints, including psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, or anterior uveitis.

          7. Do People With Spondyloarthritis Tend To Develop Any Other Conditions?

          Spondyloarthritis is associated with certain health conditions. The additional health conditions a person experiences alongside spondyloarthritis are known as comorbidities.

          The following conditions are comorbidities in spondyloarthritis.

          Cardiovascular Disease

          Between 2% and 10% of people with ankylosing spondylitis have heart problems like hypertension (high blood pressure), arrhythmias (heartbeat that is too fast or slow), and ischemic heart disease.15

          Heart disease is a serious concern, but you can take steps to minimize the risk of developing it or to better manage it. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and quitting smoking if you smoke can help lower your risk of developing heart conditions or help you manage one. Annual screening for cardiovascular disease is also important for monitoring your health.15


          About half of people with ankylosing spondylitis also have low bone mineral density, which includes osteoporosis and osteopenia.16 Osteoporosis can increase the risk of fractures, including spinal fractures.1

          Screening for osteoporosis is especially important for people with ankylosing spondylitis. Various treatments can be prescribed for people found to have osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise and sufficient calcium and vitamin D intake are important for everyone with AS, to reduce the risk of osteoporosis or help manage it.16


          As many as half of people with spondyloarthritis will develop uveitis (eye inflammation). Uveitis usually occurs in one eye at a time. Symptoms include redness, sensitivity to light, and pain. It’s important to seek medical attention right away to prevent permanent damage to the eyes. Treatment usually consists of corticosteroid eye drops.17


          Psoriatic arthritis is a type of spondyloarthritis that occurs in about 30% of people with psoriasis, a skin condition characterized by scales and plaques.18 Most people with psoriatic arthritis also have the skin symptoms of psoriasis.19

          Research has found between 3.1% and 18.9% of people with axSpA also have psoriasis, depending on the geographic area.20 There are several treatment options for psoriasis, including topical treatments, oral medications, and biologics.18

          Inflammatory Bowel Disease

          Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis occur in 6% to 14% of people with ankylosing spondylitis. Some treatments for IBD are not appropriate for people with AS, and some AS treatments are not appropriate for people with IBD. For example, long-term use of NSAIDs is not recommended for people with IBD.21 Open communication with the health care providers treating your AS and IBD is important to ensure your treatments are appropriate for you. Consider bringing a list of all of your medications to appointments with your doctors.

          To save or print this article, email it to yourself by clicking the button below.

          GL-DA-2300220. Date of preparation: September 2023
          © UCB Biopharma SRL, 2023. All rights reserved.

          1. Spondyloarthritis. American College of Rheumatology. Updated December 2021. Accessed September 2023. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Spondyloarthritis
          2. Akkoc N, Khan MA. Is axial spondyloarthritis more common than rheumatoid arthritis? Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2020;22(9):54. doi:10.1007/s11926-020-00934-3
          3. Excuse me, spondy what? Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org
          4. Sieper J, van der Heijde D. Review: Nonradiographic axial spondyloarthritis: new definition of an old disease? Arthritis Rheum. 2013;65(3):543-51. doi:10.1002/art.37803
          5. Deodhar A. What is non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis? Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org/spondylitis-plus/what-is-non-radiographic-axial-spondyloarthritis
          6. Overview of spondylitis. Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org/about-spondylitis/types-of-spondylitis
          7. Reactive Arthritis. American College of Rheumatology. Updated December 2021. Accessed September 2023. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Reactive-Arthritis
          8. Rath L. The spondyloarthritis family. April 11, 2022. Accessed September 2023. https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/spondyloarthritis
          9. Lipton S, Deodhar A. The new ASAS classification criteria for axial and peripheral spondyloarthritis: promises and pitfalls. Int J Clin Rheumtol. 2012;7(6):675-82. doi:10.2217/ijr.12.61
          10. Taurog JD, Chhabra A, Colbert RA. Ankylosing spondylitis and axial spondyloarthritis. N Engl J Med. 2016;374(26):2563-74. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1406182
          11. Ward MM, Deodhar A, Gensler LS, et al. 2019 Update of the American College of Rheumatology/Spondylitis Association of America/Spondyloarthritis Research and Treatment Network recommendations for the treatment of ankylosing spondylitis and nonradiographic axial spondyloarthritis. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2019;71(10):1599-13. doi:10.1002/art.41042
          12. 2019 axial spondyloarthritis treatment recommendations: a brief overview for patients and families. Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/SAA_Pocket_Guide_WEB.pdf
          13. Ward MM, Deodhar A, Akl EA, et al. American College of Rheumatology/Spondylitis Association of America/Spondyloarthritis Research and Treatment Network 2015 recommendations for the treatment of ankylosing spondylitis and nonradiographic axial spondyloarthritis. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2016;68(2):282-98. doi:10.1002/art.39298
          14. Rudwaleit M. New approaches to diagnosis and classification of axial and peripheral spondyloarthritis. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2010;22(4):375-80. doi:10.1097/BOR.0b013e32833ac5cc
          15. The heart in spondyloarthritis. Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org/about-spondylitis/possible-complications/the-heart-in-spondylitis
          16. Hinze AM, Louie GH. Osteoporosis management in ankylosing spondylitis. Curr Treatm Opt Rheumatol. 2016;2(4):271-82. doi:10.1007/s40674-016-0055-6
          17. Iritis or anterior uveitis. Spondylitis Association of America. Accessed September 2023. https://spondylitis.org/about-spondylitis/possible-complications/iritis-or-anterior-uveitis
          18. About psoriatic arthritis. National Psoriasis Foundation. Updated June 2, 2022. Accessed September 2023. https://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriatic-arthritis
          19. Coates LC, Helliwell PS. Psoriatic arthritis: state of the art review. Clin Med (Lond). 2017;17(1):65-70. doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.17-1-65
          20. Rondags A, van Marle L, Horváth B, Wink FR, Arends S, Spoorenberg A. Psoriasis seems often underdiagnosed in patient with axial spondyloarthritis. Arthritis Res Ther. 2023;25(1):145. doi:10.1186/s13075-023-03119-2
          21. Fragoulis GE, Liava C, Daoussis D, Akriviadis E, Garyfallos A, Dimitroulas T. Inflammatory bowel diseases and spondyloarthropathies: from pathogenesis to treatment. World J Gastroenterol. 2019;25(18):2162-76. doi:10.3748/wjg.v25.i18.2162
                  Updated on October 12, 2023
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                  Alison Channon has nearly a decade of experience writing about chronic health conditions, mental health, and women's health. Learn more about her here.
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