Blair is treated in hospital after suffering slipped disc

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Tony Blair was treated in hospital last night for a slipped disc after suffering several weeks of back pain.

Tony Blair was treated in hospital last night for a slipped disc after suffering several weeks of back pain.

The Prime Minister was released after being given an anti-inflammatory injection for the injury, which he blamed on exercising in the gym before the election campaign.

He left the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London, after treatment and returned to Chequers, his country residence in Buckinghamshire. Downing Street said he would be back at his desk this morning and insisted his back problem would have no impact on his intention to serve a full third term.

But the episode, which follows two heart scares in the last two years, threatens to revive speculation about the health of the 52-year-old Prime Minister. He was observed limping during the election campaign and appeared to have put on weight. During the BBC's Question Time programme, in which the main three party leaders faced a studio audience, Mr Blair sweated profusely and looked tired and tense.

Downing Street said: "The Prime Minister has been experiencing some back pain over the last couple of months. It has given him discomfort from time to time, but obviously hasn't stopped him doing his job. Following a referral by his GP, he had an outpatient appointment at the Royal Free Hospital earlier this evening."

Andrew Platts, a consultant radiologist who treated him, confirmed the Prime Minister had suffered a slipped disc, but said it was unlikely he would require more treatment.

The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie, briefly caused confusion last night as she denied he was suffering the condition. But Downing Street explained she had been told her husband had a "prolapsed disc" and appeared not to have realised this was simply a technical term for a slipped disc.

It said that Mr Blair, who works out several times a week as a relief from the pressures of the job, believed he had sustained the injury while exercising. He has said he prides himself on being in shape, playing tennis and running on a treadmill in the morning before starting work.

Downing Street confirmed there was no link between his earlier heart problems and his back pain. It could not comment on whether his occasional discomfort during the election campaign was caused by his slipped disc.

Last night's hospital visit followed a full day's work at Downing Street, including three hours of talks with Northern Ireland's political leaders. He then hosted a reception to thank his election team workers.

Mr Blair will hold a breakfast meeting with Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, at Chequers today and then spend the weekend there. He faces a gruelling few months, with Britain assuming the presidency of both the European Union and the G8 group of leading industrialised nations in July. He may also have to kick off the campaign for a "yes" vote in next year's referendum on ratifying the proposed European constitution.

In October 2004 Mr Blair was treated at Hammersmith Hospital in west London, to correct an irregular heartbeat caused by an atrial flutter. At the same time he announced he would fight the next election but, if re-elected, not fight a fourth election. A year earlier, in October 2003, he spent five hours in the same hospital and had a cardioversion to regulate his heartbeat after complaining of chest pains.

Prime Minister is stricken by his third health scare in two years

Tony Blair's current health problem follows his treatment for an irregular heartbeat last October.

He was sedated for a two-and-a-half-hour procedure to correct the recurring condition, caused by an atrial flutter, at Hammersmith hospital.

A year earlier, doctors at the same hospital gave him a cardioversion, an electric shock, to correct an irregular heartbeat after he had complained of chest pains while staying at Chequers.

Yesterday's illness is less serious, but probably more painful. A slipped disc occurs when one of the jelly-like cartilages which separate vertebrae is pushed out.

Symptoms can build up over weeks - as in Mr Blair's case - and can include difficulty moving, muscular spasms and aching. Sudden movements of the back can trigger a slipped disc, where the soft nucleus of disc does not return to position.

There are two kinds of slipped disc - a prolapsed disc, which was diagnosed in Mr Blair, where the intervertabral disc is pushed out from its normal position, and the more serious herniated disc, where it ruptures the tough fibrous coating around the spine.

Treatment depends on the degree of slippage, but in less serious cases gentle exercises can provide relief. Surgery is rarely required.

It is most common in people between 25 and 45, and men are more susceptible than women. People who have suffered it once are more likely to get it again.

Harvey McGavin