Understanding motor neurone disease

Motor neurone disease (MND) is a term used to describe a group of rare diseases that affect the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In the UK, MND affects around two in every 100,000 people with about 5,000 people living with the disease at any one given time.

About MND

Motor neurone disease occurs when specialist nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain (motor neurones) stop functioning properly. Motor neurones control vital muscle functions, such as breathing, speaking, swallowing, walking and gripping.

Most MND cases occur in people in their early 60s, although younger people in their late teens and older people in their 90s can also catch the disease. The disease affects slightly more men than women and has no cure yet.

Patients progressively find it difficult to do essential muscle functions – and eventually are unable to do them at all. The world recently watched the heartbreaking moment when former Rangers star and ex-Holland defender Fernando Ricksen broke down in tears on a live TV news show in his homeland when he revealed he has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Details of the former footballer’s life-threatening condition only came to the public limelight for the first time when the presenter asked him why he was talking so slow.

Causes of MND

The exact cause of motor neurons failing is not clear, but it is thought that factors like diet, lifestyle and even race have something to do with it. Faulty genes have also been identified as a possible contributing factor to the disease. About 5% of people with MND can trace a family history with the disease or a related condition known as frontotemporal dementia.

Diagnosis and treatment of MND

Diagnosis of motor neurone disease is based solely on the opinion of a neurologist. There is no single test for diagnosing the disease. Treatment aims to make the patient as comfortable as possible and provide the best quality of life as bodily functions progressively shut down.

A breathing mask, for example, may be used to reduce shortness of breath and tablet medication used to help control oral secretions. A medication known as riluzole has also shown slight improvement in patients' overall comfort and survival, although it is not a cure.

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