Motor neurone disease (MND) is the name given to a group of rare diseases that affect nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. These nerve cells control the muscles in your body, and the diseases can lead to muscle weakness and wasting.
Your brain sends instructions to muscles that control your voluntary movement (such as walking and swallowing) along nerve cells called motor neurones. Motor neurone disease gradually destroys these nerve cells, which causes weakness and wasting of your muscles.
Around two in every 100,000 people in western countries develop motor neurone disease each year. It tends to occur after the age of 40 – usually between 50 and 70, although some types of motor neurone disease can appear in young adults and even in children. Motor neurone disease affects twice as many men than women.
Motor neurone disease can affect different people in different ways. There are also different types of motor neurone disease. The way motor neurone disease affects your life will depend on the type you have and also the age you get it. Some types of motor neurone disease progress slowly but others, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, can be fatal.
There are three main types of motor neurone disease, which affect different groups of nerves.
Motor neurone disease develops at different speeds in different people and affects individuals in different ways.
The disease usually begins very gradually and you may just feel tired to start with. The first symptoms of muscle problems are often having clumsy fingers and a weak grip. Other symptoms include:
These symptoms aren’t always caused by motor neurone disease but if you have them, see your GP.
Although thinking and reasoning aren’t usually affected, it’s possible you may have some level of intellectual difficulty or a change in personality later on in the disease.
You may have symptoms in just certain parts of your body to begin with but they will eventually spread to the rest of your body. As the disease progresses you may have the following problems.
The exact reasons why you may develop motor neurone disease aren't fully understood at present. Research is underway to understand the cause.
A small number of people with motor neurone disease have a family history of the condition, indicating that it may be possible to inherit the condition. However for most people with motor neurone disease, the disease appears for no apparent reason. This is called sporadic motor neurone disease.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. If your GP suspects you may have motor neurone disease he or she will refer you to a neurologist (a doctor who specialises in conditions that affect the nervous system).
There is no single diagnostic test for motor neurone disease. Your neurologist will usually make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and what he or she finds when examining you. Your neurologist will also try to rule out other neurological conditions.
Tests to help diagnose motor neurone disease include the following.
There isn’t a cure for motor neurone disease but there are medicines available to slow down the progress of the disease and manage your symptoms.
It’s important to discuss your symptoms with your GP or doctor so that he or she can help you to effectively manage them.
Your doctor may offer you a mask ventilator system to wear at night while you’re asleep. This should help you to breathe easier and may slow the progress of motor neurone disease. The machines are small and easy to carry.
Researchers are continually improving their understanding of motor neurone disease and investigating new treatments. If you’re interested in taking part in a clinical trial, ask your doctor for advice.
Scientific discoveries that may lead to future treatments include:
Complementary therapies will not stop the progression of motor neurone disease but may help with some of the symptoms. For example, it may help reduce anxiety and stress and make your day-to-day life more comfortable.
Complementary therapies include:
Talk to your GP or doctor before you start any complementary therapy. Also make sure your practitioner is fully qualified and registered with or affiliated to a recognised body.
A team of professionals will help support you, and your family. Examples of health professionals who can help you manage your symptoms include the following.
The support of your family and friends is often invaluable and can help with anxiety and stress.
Patient associations, such as the Motor Neurone Disease Association, provide information and services that may make life easier and more comfortable. It may also help to contact other people who have motor neurone disease through charities and patient groups, as they can be a good source of support and advice.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, November 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Bupa Care Homes