Eight years ago, Dan Reynolds was on the cusp of stardom — but his health was in turmoil.
Reynolds, the frontman of Grammy-award winning band Imagine Dragons, tells PEOPLE that at age 21 he began to experience “debilitating” pain that forced him to cancel shows.
“It was beyond the pain that you feel when it’s just a back ache. It felt like someone was drilling my nerves,” he says. “It was right when the band was starting to have minor success — we were starting to sell out small clubs, and we were playing these very active shows and it started to make me have to cancel shows.”
He adds, “I couldn’t get on stage. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t sleep at night, I couldn’t perform without standing perfectly still. I couldn’t sit down for more than a half an hour.”
Yet, countless visits to doctors couldn’t diagnose the pain source. Some suggested that Reynolds had sciatica, but the appropriate treatment didn’t combat it. The experience, Reynolds says, was “frustrating.”
Then, at the suggestion of his brother, the vocalist consulted a rheumatologist to see if he had ankylosing spondylitis, a condition that two of his siblings suffer from. Ankylosing spondylitis, often referenced as AS, is a chronic inflammatory condition of the joints that can lead to extreme pain and in the worst cases, spinal fusion.
“I went, and then they did the test to see if it’s in your genes — which it was, because it’s an autoimmune disease,” he says. “And then they diagnosed me and put me on a treatment plan, which fixed me almost immediately. Which was another sign that that’s what it was.”
Reynolds’ treatment involves staying active and eating healthy — he does a lot of yoga, he says. What works is different for everyone though, he specifies, but swears by his rheumatologist.
Now 29, Reynolds admits that he felt hesitation about sharing his diagnosis with Imagine Dragons’ fans. “I was shy to reveal it because it made me feel like something was wrong with me, or — to say the word disease, it’s such a drastic sounding word,” he says. “And I didn’t want to admit to myself, or to anybody, that I was struggling with a disease.”
Now, after opening up, the singer says he’s not sure what he was afraid of — and that he’s ready to help others feel the same way through This AS Life Live!, an online, interactive talk show for patients with AS, hosted by patients with AS.
“I have a chance to really raise awareness and help people that are just becoming diagnosed to see that there’s actually light at the end of the tunnel,” he tells PEOPLE of This AS Life Live!, which is in partnership with the Spondylitis Association of America (SAA) and Novartis. “For me, I really wish that there was a place that I could have gone to where I was seeing a direct community. People talking and saying, ‘These are the things I’m feeling. These are the ways that I’m combatting it, and it’s working for me. ‘”
Reynolds says the onset of the disease can be a “scary time,” and he hopes to help provide some insight to other patients about pushing through.
In addition to videos, the site will have information about the disease, as well as community chat forums for patients — and their family members — to get in touch with each other. And, Reynolds notes, that support from loved ones is crucial.
He says that his Imagine Dragons bandmates — Wayne Sermon, Daniel Platzman, Ben McKee — are “really supportive,” but that it’s his wife, Aja Volkman, that’s been endlessly “patient.”
“There was probably six months of my life where I could hardly do anything — I couldn’t lift things, and [Volkman] was just patient through all of it,” Reynolds says. And now, he’s got even more people to stay healthy for: daughter Arrow, 4, and twins — two girls — due in April.
“My 4-year-old daughter is just the light of the world,” he tells PEOPLE. “She’s my everything and the thought of not being able to pick her up is just the worst thought that a father could ever have.”
He’s also back in the studio, working on a third album — which he speculates might be out sometime in 2017. The record, he promises, comes from a “healthier place” than the band’s last outing, Smoke + Mirrors.
Through it all, Reynolds says he remains committed to the “disciplined” and active lifestyle that keeps flare-ups at bay — and now, helping others do the same.
Although Reynolds is now in remission, he says that life with AS is a “constant and life-long battle.”
He shares, “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not combatting it in some way.”