Psoriatic Arthritis and Back Pain

Learn more about axial arthritis or spondylitis, which causes back pain and may affect your treatment for PsA.

By Beth Axtell

When you think of psoriatic arthritis (PsA), you may imagine skin symptoms or the commonly affected joints, like the fingers, knees, ankles or elbows (peripheral arthritis). However, for many people with the disease, back pain can become a symptom as well. When the spine is affected, it’s known as axial arthritis or spondylitis. Spondylitis affects the spine and sacroiliac joints, which are located at the bottom of the back.

Who Does Spondylitis Affect?

Many people with PsA have axial arthritis and most of them will have a mix of peripheral and axial arthritis. A much smaller number of people with PsA can have inflammation primarily in the axial area (axial dominant involvement) without peripheral symptoms.

Axial involvement is usually a late-onset feature of PsA, but not always. Studies show that most PsA patients with spondylitis can have back symptoms for up to 10 years before diagnosis is made.

Other symptoms of PsA that people with axial disease may have include; inflammation where ligaments and tendons insert into bones (enthesitis); inflammation of an entire finger or toe (dactylitis or “sausage digit”); skin disease (psoriasis); pitting and lifting of nails from the nailbed; eye inflammation (uveitis); and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Since the treatment for PsA with axial involvement may be different than for PsA with only peripheral symptoms, it is important to know the signs and talk to your doctor about your back pain.

Mechanical Pain vs. Inflammatory Back Pain in PsA

Inflammatory back pain is different from mechanical back pain that’s considered “run-of-mill” back pain. This type of pain usually starts with a specific event, such as lifting a heavy object or an injury. It gets worse with use, makes it difficult to sleep and may cause pain that travels down the legs to the feet.

In PsA with axial involvement, X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may show erosions and abnormal bone growth between your vertebrae (or backbone). Over time, these growths may cause the joints of your spine to merge, limiting your range of motion. But studies of PsA patients show they are less likely to lose spinal mobility than those with ankylosing spondylitis, a related type of inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine.
Features of axial back pain: 

  • Pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night,
  • Pain that gets better with exercise and worse when you are sedentary,
  • Inflammation in your sacroiliac joints that cause hip and buttock pain,
  • Back stiffness that lasts for 30 minutes or longer in the morning.

Predictors of Axial Involvement

Certain signs may predict axial involvement in PsA. These include having the HLA-B27 blood protein, experiencing nail changes, a higher number of damaged joints, a high erythrocyte sedimentation rate (often called sed rate) and longer disease duration. Most PsA patients with spondylitis are diagnosed before age 40, although it can occur later in life. Also, men are more likely to have axial involvement.

“Studies suggest axial PsA may be associated with more aggressive peripheral arthritis,” says Alexis Ogdie, MD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Penn Psoriatic Arthritis Clinic, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

GRAPPA Recommendations for Treating Axial PsA

Treatment recommendations for peripheral arthritis released by Group for Research and Assessment of Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis (GRAPPA) in 2016 include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroid injections 
  • Traditional disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • A class of biologics called TNF inhibitors.

If you also develop spondylitis, your treatment plan may need to change. GRAPPA’s recommendations for axial PsA include:

  • NSAIDs, pain relievers, 
  • Physical therapy, 
  • TNF inhibitors, 
  • Different classes of biologics, such as IL-12, IL-17 and IL-23 inhibitors,  
  • Corticosteroid injections into the sacroiliac joint, 
  • Bisphosphonates (to treat or prevent osteoporosis). 

The GRAPPA recommendations advise against the use of traditional DMARDs, IL-6 inhibitors and CD20 inhibitors for PsA with axial involvement. 

Managing Axial Disease with Your Doctor

Dr. Ogdie says it is important to treat axial disease specifically. “The oral disease-modifying drugs like methotrexate don’t work for the spine, so you may have to use a TNF inhibitor first. That’s going to give the best symptomatic improvement, but also the best long-term prognosis for the spine joints.”
For a comprehensive treatment plan, your doctor will recommend a combination of medications and non-drug therapies, including disease education, regular exercise and physical therapy. When people are diagnosed with PsA they should tell their physician as soon as they start having back or neck pain or stiffness – especially in the morning when they first wake up, so treatment can be targeted appropriately.  Another consideration is that some people with PsA (especially women) can have axial disease with no symptoms. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your spine health at your next checkup even if back pain isn’t a problem.

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