New detailed scans of royal Egyptian mummies reveal that several pharaohs who ruled three millennia ago actually suffered from a degenerative spinal condition—and not a debilitating form of spinal arthritis as previous x-rays have indicated. The findings were published in Arthritis and Rheumatology this week.
Ankylosing spondylitis causes inflammation in the spinal joints and leads to pain, stiffness in the back, and sometimes the bony fusion of the spine. This disabling condition belongs to a group of inflammatory conditions that causes arthritis and affects up to 2.4 million Americans over the age of 15 today, according to the American College of Rheumatology. It was also thought to have plagued members of ancient royal families based on x-rays of three pharaohs—Amenhotep II, Ramesses II and his son Merenptah—taken in the 1980s.
Now, a team led by Sahar Saleem from the Kasr Al Ainy Faculty of Medicine in Cairo conducted detailed CT scans on 13 royal Egyptian mummies from 1492 to 1153 BC to look for signs of arthritis. Computed tomography scans are like x-rays, except multiple cross-sectional pictures are taken.
They ruled out a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis because they didn’t find evidence of joint erosion in the lower back and pelvis area (the sacroiliac joints), fusion of these sacroiliac joints, or fusion of small joints between vertebrae in the spine (called facet joints). Instead, they found distinctive patterns of ossification along the vertebral bodies that indicate diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) in the ancient mummies of four pharaohs: Amenhotep III of the 18th dynasty along with Ramesses II, his son Merenptah, and Ramesses III from the 19th through early 20th dynasties.
With DISH, ligaments along the spinal vertebrae harden and cause stiffness in the upper back. While DISH may appear similar to ankylosing spondylitis, it’s actually a degenerative (and not an inflammatory) type of arthritis that affects people ages 60 and up.
These findings correspond with archaeological literature, which indicates that the pharaohs led active lifestyles and lived relatively long lives: Their average age of death was 63, Science reports, making this re-diagnosis especially plausible.