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Persistent low-back pain could be long-term arthritis

GPs are being urged to be more aware of a form of long-term arthritis which can affect parts of the spine including bones, muscles and ligaments.

The condition, known as ankylosing spondylitis, can lead to different symptoms but most people experience back pain and stiffness.

The condition can be severe, with around one-in-10 people at risk of long-term disability.

The 'Watch Your Back' campaign is aimed at picking up the condition early as young people can be left undiagnosed for seven years.

Estimates of different European populations suggest that ankylosing spondylitis may affect between two to five adults in every 1,000.

The Ankylosing Spondylitis Association of Ireland (ASAI) said this delay is due to various factors including a low level of patient-symptom awareness, delay in recognition of inflammatory back pain by GPs and long waiting lists for appointments with rheumatology specialists.

Men aged 16 to 35 are the most common sufferers.

Dr Patrick Davern, GP and member of the AS Awareness Council (ASAC), said: "A speedy diagnosis is imperative for the treatment of the condition and we hope that this initiative will lead to quicker access to treatment and a better quality of life for those with the condition."

Doctors who treat patients who have persistent low back pain for more than three months should look out for:

  • Morning back stiffness lasting longer than 30 minutes.
  • Improvement of symptoms with exercise but not rest.
  • Waking up in the second half of the night.
  • Alternating buttock pain.

Barry O'Shea, a rheumatologist in St James's Hospital, said: "It is a complicated condition and it is very easy to confuse it with mechanical back pain (stress and strain on supporting muscles due to bad habits such as poor lifting).

"Low levels of symptom awareness coupled with a lack of knowledge of new diagnostic tools indicate the condition is under-diagnosed. We welcome this new campaign targeting young people to encourage them to act on their low back pain."

A poster campaign is being rolled out to GP waiting rooms across the country targeting 16- to 21-year-olds, highlighting the need to act on persistent low back pain.

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