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Help for arthritic backs

Date: 27 November, 2012

Help for arthritic backs

If you are a fit young person but suffer from backache, talk to your doctor.

You may have Ankylosing Spondylitis, a type of arthritis which can strike relatively young people, mainly men, and is often not diagnosed for years. That’s the bad news. The good news is a small team at Waikato Hospital are working together to diagnose and treat the disease.

Led by rheumatologist Dr Douglas White, and including physiotherapist Sarah Wales and clinical nurse specialist Trisha Holmes, all from the Rheumatology Department, the team are concerned many people are suffering in silence when help is available.

“We are seeing a third to a half of who we should be seeing,” says Dr White, who says data from overseas suggests AS affects about 1 per cent of the population.

“We are not seeing that and we could do a lot for these people.”

While this under-reporting is a concern it has risen sharply since a national advertising campaign last year which saw a 64 per cent jump in referrals from GPs

When people with Ankylosing Spondylitis do get the right diagnosis they typically arrive at a Rheumatology Department’s outpatient clinic. These are held twice a month, and provide information and support for patients. There is also a one-hour weekly exercise class at the clinic.

An extension of that is a three-month pilot course of hydrotherapy classes being run by physio Sarah at the hydrotherapy pool at Waterworld. The pilot is being funded by a pharmaceutical company connected with the treatment of the condition.

While there is no cure, medication and exercise programmes can make a huge difference to the quality of people’s lives.

“The men really appreciate the group environment, with their strengthening and stretching. The feedback has been very positive and the men say they can feel the benefits.”
Exercise and stretching help retain mobility and can stop the vertebrae fusing – the worst result of the disease.

In a worst-case scenario that fusion may mean a person can no longer drive and probably not work. In a best-case outcome treatment will allow the person to lead a full, productive life.

This is why Dr White and his team want to get involved early in the process.

“This is a great team here,” said Dr White, whose research work in AS he hopes will help slash the diagnosis time down from the current seven years. “That’s too long, and so much could be done in that time.”

Rheumatoid arthritis is usually diagnosed within months.

Physio Sarah agrees. “This is not as rare as people think and there are options for them.”

Nurse Trisha has done a lot of work supporting the clinics and patients, including creating a database to keep track of people’s progress. She too wants to see better and earlier outcomes for AS people. “I lot of young guys blame sports injuries. But I see young fathers who can’t play with their babies – because of the back pain – so it has a huge impact on their quality of life.”


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