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Spondylitis overview

Spondylitis is a rare form of arthritis that affects the joints and vertebrae of the spine. This type of arthritis, which is more commonly present in young adult men than in women, often begins by stiffening the lumbar spine (lower back) and then works its way up to the cervical spine (neck).

In rare cases, spondylitis causes the vertebrae to fuse together which permanently eliminates the ability to move that section of the spine. Many patients are able to recognize the symptoms of spondylitis before vertebral fusion begins, allowing them to prevent or at least slow the process.

Causes of spondylitis

The cause of spondylitis still remains unknown, though medical researchers have discovered a genetic element that puts people at an increased risk for developing this condition. A gene called HLA-B27 has been linked to many cases of spondylitis, and is often found within a family line — meaning more than one family member who carries this gene is affected by spondylitis.

While this gene is not an exact cause of the condition, it does indicate a higher risk for developing it in a person’s teenage years or during their early twenties.

Other risk factors for this condition include:

  • Males are at higher risk than females
  • Teens and young adults are at higher risk than children and older adults
  • Certain Native American tribes seem to be more prone to this condition

While these risk factors have been identified, the exact cause of spondylitis remains unknown. Despite the cause — if the condition does develop — the pain and symptoms are hard to ignore.

Symptoms of spondylitis

Because spondylitis involves the swelling and sometimes fusing of the vertebrae from the neck to the lower back, often the first and most common symptoms of this condition is stiffness. Other spondylitis symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Limited mobility
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty breathing — seek emergency medical care
  • Difficulty walking
  • Pain in the ligaments and tendons of the spine

As the condition worsens, the vertebrae could begin to fuse together, causing deformity within the spine and a “slumped over” posture. If vertebral fusion develops in the thoracic spine (middle back), it can prevent the chest from expanding to breathe, causing pain in the chest and difficulty breathing. This is a serious symptom and should be treated by an emergency medical professional immediately.

Spondylitis symptoms often begin in the sacral region, near the bottom of the spine and the pelvis and hip area. Most patients with this condition begin to experience chronic stiffness in the lower back, legs and hips. While these symptoms are not always indicative of spondylitis and can sometimes be found as part of other lumbar spine conditions, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to examine these symptoms and diagnose the cause of your pain.

Diagnosing spondylitis

Diagnosing spondylitis is a little more involved than diagnosing other spine conditions. Along with a physical examination and medical imaging test of the spine, a doctor may also order an X-ray of the pelvis area to view if inflammation is spreading into the sacral region.

In some cases of progressive spondylitis, your doctor may measure your chest while breathing to ensure proper chest expansion is possible.

Once your doctor views your MRI and X-rays, he or she can make an accurate diagnosis of your condition. If you are diagnosed with spondylitis, there are some treatments available to help relieve your symptoms and slow the progression of your condition.

Treatments for spondylitis

While there is no known cure for spondylitis, there are many conservative and surgical treatments available that are aimed at reducing the symptoms associated with this condition.

Many doctors will begin to treat the symptoms of spondylitis with a series of conservative, nonsurgical treatments, such as:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Lifestyle changes, like quitting the use of tobacco and alcohol

These treatments are designed to help relieve some of the pressure on the spine, thereby reducing the symptoms of the inflamed joints. If the symptoms of spondylitis do not subside after several months, or if they no longer respond to conservative treatments after a period of time, your doctor may recommend spine surgery.

Often, traditional open back surgery in a hospital is the only surgical option for spondylitis. This type of procedure aims to reduce the inflammation in the joints and decompress any pinched nerves near the spine that are causing pain. Your surgeon can recommend the most appropriate type of surgery for you based on your MRI or CT scan, symptoms and medical history.

Laser Spine Institute does not treat this condition, but we do treat other common spine conditions, like a herniated disc or bone spur, with our minimally invasive procedures. If you’d like more information, contact Laser Spine Institute today.