Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

MP Andrew George exercises to keep condition at bay

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Andrew George
Andrew George does a busy 80-hour week, despite having AS

Getting out of bed each morning is a painful struggle for MP Andrew George.

And bending down to put on his socks and shoes can be agony.

For the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives and Isles of Scilly has the autoimmune disease Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS).

AS is a chronic condition that has no cure. It primarily affects the spine but can also affect other joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as eyes, lungs, bowel and heart.

In Andrew George's case it has caused permanent eye damage.

Keep active

His answer to keeping his body moving - exercise and plenty of it.

"The answer to AS is to remain as fit and active as possible," he said.

I have long-term damage to the iris
Andrew George

"The pain is usually in my back or chest, but sometimes it can be in an arm or a hip.

"I find that if I have had a good cycle or even a good run I don't usually get the symptoms within a day or two of the exercise.

"I do find the mornings hard to get up, it takes me a lot longer to get mobile in comparison to others like my wife who just jumps out of bed, well after I have made her a coffee anyway.

"I would love to paint myself as a hero in the face of adversity but I don't want to play it up too much. I am just lucky I have a milder form of AS."

Drug availability

Andrew takes basic anti-inflammatories, but says he has campaigned vigorously to get the expensive anti-TNF (tumour necrosis factor) drugs available to all.

And he has joined the National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society's panel of experts to address the challenges for people with AS to remain confidently in work.

Although he admits to dislike taking his drugs: "I don't mind taking them at night because it knocks out all the symptoms and you can sleep, but if you take them at the beginning of the day it can knock you out. "

He said the condition left him fatigued, although after a busy 80-hour working week it was difficult to know what is caused by what.

"I know two other MPs with AS, although obviously I am not going to mention their names.

Andrew George
Andrew George keeps himself fit

"It does not affect my work a great deal," he said.

But he says he it influenced his life a great deal when he had the first symptoms as a teenager.

"It first started when I was 16. I had very painful hips which were very inflamed and I had limited mobility as well," said the 50-year-old MP.

"I had been having trials for Cornwall at cricket and football and things like that and my dreams of going further in that field and in rugby came to an abrupt end.

"I didn't understood what was going wrong then, but it was very frustrating especially for a young chap who was ambitious.

"It was very upsetting as well as perplexing because no-one could explain. I would say 'I don't know what it is but it is hurting here and there' and people don't believe you.

Future sight loss

"It took six years to diagnose it.

"They wrongly thought I had a slipped disc and various back problems.

"They said I had 'growing pains' and I had to go off in a hospital car to see a physio for stretching that went on for some time and never had any impact."

AS is a chronic, autoimmune disease that has no cure and primarily affects the spine but can also affect other joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as eyes, lungs, bowel and heart
About one in 200 men and one in 500 women in Britain are affected by the disease
The disease typically affects people in their late teens and twenties

The course of AS is variable, but the majority of patients have continuous disease activity with episodes of acute pain, known as 'flare-ups', against a background of persistent symptoms.

There is a need for joint replacement surgery in some patients. In its most severe form, AS can result in complete spinal fusion, which can cause severe functional limitation and the potential for deformity over time.

But Mr George, who became an MP in 1997, said he knew the illness has always the potential to turn very serious.

His AS has caused serious problems with his eyes, which he has been told will cause him long-term damage.

"I had the first really scary bout of iritis - inflammation of the iris - when I was diagnosed. It almost blinded me. I have had it since and been told I have long-term damage to the iris. At the moment my eyes are quite good although I do need reading glasses.

"It will cause future sight loss though."

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