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Healthy Habits for Ankylosing Spondylitis

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 24, 2020

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) can make it hard to do everyday things, especially when your symptoms are severe. You may have trouble getting dressed, lifting objects, getting up from a seat, nodding, and turning your head side to side. But there are a number of things you can do every day that will help you to increase your range of motion and keep your condition under control.

Keep these healthy habits in mind as a way to improve how you feel in your day-to-day life.

Physical Activity Is Key

When you’re stiff and sore, it can be hard to find the motivation to work out, but exercise can make a big difference for your overall health. Physical activity can not only help you avoid stiffness, but also improve your posture and flexibility. Low resistance exercises like swimming, yoga, and Pilates can help to stretch, extend your back, and ease some pain.

Make sure you also include low-intensity cardio workouts, like brisk walking, cycling, and other aerobic exercises that get your heart rate up. Besides providing pain relief, these exercises help to improve breathing, endurance, and your mood. Aim to exercise at least three to five times a week for a total of 75 to 150 minutes per week. If you’re not sure how to start, you can talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about an exercise routine that works best for your condition and lifestyle.

Mind Your Posture

When you make a conscious effort to keep your back straight, you can help your bones and joints stay in alignment and ease the strain on your spine. It also improves your range of motion and cuts your chances of muscle fatigue and injury. A few small, easy stretches and posture-correcting habits throughout the day can help you develop good posture over time.

  • Shrug your shoulders up by lifting them toward your ears and then roll and drop them back. Repeat this exercise five to 10 times a day.
  • Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Tuck your chin in toward your chest, hold it for a few seconds, and relax. Repeat this 10 times a day.
  • Stand and straighten your back as comfortably as you can. Imagine a rope passing through your body with one side pulling up through your head; the other side pulling in the opposite direction through your feet, making you stand tall.

The way you sleep can also help you maintain a straight posture. Use only one thin pillow, or better, no pillow. For people with AS, sleeping on a thick pillow may lead to neck problems and make your symptoms worse.

Consider Supplements

It’s common for people with AS to have lower levels of vitamin D. But your body needs this nutrient to absorb calcium from the food you eat so your bones stay healthy. While sunlight and foods like eggs and dairy products can give you some vitamin D, it often isn’t enough. Ask your doctor if vitamin D and calcium supplements might help you.

Improve Your Sleep Habits

Back pain from AS may keep you from getting good rest at night. Over time, lack of sleep can make you tired and more sensitive to AS pain. To set yourself up for quality ZZZs:

  • Skip caffeine later in the day.
  • Shut off screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Get regular exercise.

If these tips don’t work and you find yourself still struggling to sleep, talk to your doctor.

Watch Your Diet

There’s no special diet for people with AS. But certain foods and diets can help fight inflammation in your body and make a big difference for your overall health. One example is the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on nuts, beans, fruits, veggies, and fish and avoids saturated fats and processed ingredients. Filling your plate up with these nutrient-dense foods is good for your health overall and may play a role in controlling AS symptoms like joint pain and swelling.

Also, many people feel better when they limit red meat, alcohol, sugary foods and drinks, and other processed foods that cause bloating. Some people find relief on a low-starch diet, though more research is needed on that. If you want to eat better but you’re not sure where to start, speak with a dietitian to come up with a proper plan.

Manage Your Stress

It’s hard to live with a condition that affects the way your body moves. When you have AS, it’s just as important to take care of your mental health to improve your day-to-day life. While you can’t avoid stress completely, the key is to find ways to manage how it affects you. That may mean spending time with your family, friends, or pets, getting outside for a walk, or spending time on a hobby you love. There are also plenty of apps and videos online that can help you practice mindfulness through yoga and meditation. If you’re having trouble controlling stress, you may want to speak with a mental health professional for more specific guidance.

If You Smoke, Make a Plan to Quit

Managing your AS is one more reason to kick the habit. Quitting can make your treatments more effective and lower your risk for joint damage. And you don’t have to give up smoking cold turkey. There are many reliable resources, treatments, and products available to help you get started. Over-the-counter products like nicotine patches, gums, or lozenges help to cut down on cravings. Your doctor can also prescribe medications, nasal sprays, or inhalers. A counselor or support group can also improve your chances of sticking to your goal. If you’re finding it hard to start or stay on track, talk to your doctor about realistic steps.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

UptoDate: “Patient education: Ankylosing spondylitis (The Basics),” “Patient education: Axial spondyloarthritis, including ankylosing spondylitis (Beyond the Basics).”

Arthritis.org: “6 Self-Care Tips for axSpA,” “The Ultimate Arthritis Diet.”

National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin D levels in patients with ankylosing spondylitis: Is it related to disease activity?” “Fatigue in Ankylosing Spondylitis Is Associated With Psychological Factors and Brain Gray Matter.”

CDC: “How to Quit.”

Acatoday.org: “Maintaining good posture.”

Orthoinfo.aaos.org: “Vitamin D for Good Bone Health.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Posture and back health.”

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