Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that’s associated with long-term inflammation of the joints in the spine. The condition can cause back and hip pain as well as stiffness. In this interactive video experience, you will learn how the components of the spine work, the effects and progression of ankylosing spondylitis, and how the condition can affect a person’s mobility. Use the blue arrow keys to advance through the three levels of the experience, and click the play button to start each video.
The healthy vertebral column, or spine, is flexible, yet it is perfectly suited to its primary job, which is to protect the vulnerable nerves of the spinal cord. Like interlocking puzzle pieces, the bones of the vertebral column fit together perfectly, allowing flexibility of the body without compromising spinal cord protection. As normal aging progresses, the tissue of the cushioning intervertebral discs develops small tears and cracks. At the same time, the inner gel-likenucleus pulposus gradually loses water, and with it, the ability to absorb shocks efficiently. Eventually the outer rings of the annulus fibrosus weaken and tear, reducing flexibility and possibly causing pain.
Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a degenerative autoimmune disease; a form of inflammatory arthritis that mostly affects the spine. Although no one knows what causes the inflammation that ultimately results in the development of “stiff vertebrae,” people with AS are believed to have a strong genetic predisposition for the disease. As the vertebrae continue to grow they eventually fuse together, encasing the shock-absorbing spinal discs, and severely limiting the flexibility of the spine. Once the vertebrae become fused, the patient is said to have “bamboo spine.”
By moving the slider back and forth, it’s easy to visualize the contrast between a normal spine and a spine affected by ankylosing spondylitis. On the left, we see the relative inflexibility of the AS spine, compared with the flexibility of a normal spine. In this comparison, the vertebrae of the lower spine have fused together in the left-hand image, making it difficult for the affected individual to bend backwards and forwards, as needed. People with AS often must rely on a cane to walk, and may find it difficult to sit or stand for extended periods of time.
Although there is no cure for AS presently, therapies are available to reduce inflammation and pain, and to slow the progression of the disease. Treatments range from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin to corticosteroid injections to more complex treatments like cyclosporin.