Dan Reynolds, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Imagine Dragons, was diagnosed with the inflammatory disease ankylosing spondylitis (AS) in his early 20s. Now 30, Reynolds has learned to live with the condition, and in 2016, he partnered with the Spondylitis Association of America and Novartis Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness of AS and support patients. Reynolds interviews other people who live with AS for the “This AS Life” campaign, and videos of their discussions are available at www.thisASlife.com. We chatted with Reynolds this summer while Imagine Dragons was on tour.
PFL: I’ve heard that you were 21 when you started having pain. What symptoms were you having, and how long did it take before you were diagnosed?
DR: My symptoms came on pretty suddenly with a painful drilling sensation in my lower back/upper buttocks area that got worse over time. At its peak, I couldn’t sleep, and it started impacting my ability to perform on stage. It took me a few years to get diagnosed with the disease.
PFL: I’ve read that your family has a history of autoimmune diseases, including AS. So were you expecting that one day you’d find out you have AS?
DR: As crazy as it sounds, I never thought I would be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. When I began having pain, I brushed it off until it got really bad. My brother, who was diagnosed before me, was the one who suggested that I visit a rheumatologist.
PFL: Did your doctor know quickly what you had, or did it take a while to get an accurate diagnosis?
DR: I went to a few different doctors who all diagnosed me with different conditions like sciatica. Like a lot of other people with AS, it took years for me to receive an accurate diagnosis. I was finally told I had AS by a rheumatologist who specialized in the condition.
PFL: How do you manage AS? Do you take medications?
DR: Staying active helps me manage it. I practice yoga every day and try to eat healthy. I have a great rheumatologist I work with on a treatment plan, but I know that treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. I always recommend that people start with a rheumatologist and go from there.
PFL: Did you have to change your diet?
DR: I’ve always been pretty conscious about healthy eating and try to eat right whenever possible on tour.
PFL: You were diagnosed right about the time Imagine Dragons started becoming popular, and you had to cancel some shows. You’re currently doing a world tour. How are you able to manage performing now?
DR: I have to listen to my body and be really aware of what it’s telling me. It can be hard to work yoga, weight training, and healthy eating into a tour schedule. But I try to prioritize it, knowing that keeping healthy is more important than anything else on the road.
PFL: How did your fellow bandmates react when they learned about your condition?
DR: They were really supportive from the start, which says a lot given how weird and random the symptoms of AS can seem sometimes. The band is family to me, and they’ve never pushed me to do more than my body was able when I was struggling.
PFL: Has your illness informed your songwriting? To my ears, the new song “Whatever It Takes” sounds like an anthem for people with a chronic illness.
DR: I think emotions play a huge role in the creative process of writing and creating music. I don’t know that I’ve directly written something influenced by my disease, but there’s no question that it has affected me in ways that were reflected in the songs I write.
PFL: Why did you decide to get involved with the “This AS Life” campaign?
DR: I feel like I have a responsibility to spread awareness about a disease that’s so unknown. It can take people years to get a proper diagnosis, and I like to hope that sharing my and others’ personal experiences will help motivate some people with AS symptoms to speak to a rheumatologist and get themselves on a better track.
PFL: What kind of impact is it having in raising awareness about AS?
DR: It’s a unique series because it is all about people from different walks of life with AS sharing their own experience. I think it’s helpful and empowering for people with the disease to realize just how big and diverse the community of people with AS is and how successful people can be with treating it.
PFL: I’ll end with the question you’ve asked people on your videos with the campaign: If you could say a few words to your AS, what would that be?
DR: I would probably say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Living with a chronic illness can give you perspective and appreciation for things like nothing else. But at the end of the day, especially when it’s flaring up, I’d be pretty happy to take a pass on it.