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So, What Exactly Is Motor Neurone Disease?

Posted on: by Women's Health
Microscope looking at motor neurone disease slides

Photography by Pixabay

The facts behind the little talked about disease.

By now we’re sure you’ve read the headlines — South African Rugby legend, Joost van der Westhuizen, has passed away after a long battle with motor neurone disease (also known as MND). Motor neurone disease is the name given to a group of degenerative conditions (like Huntington’s Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) that attack the upper and lower parts of the nervous system.

Here’s what you need to know about the condition:

What causes it?

Motor neurones, which ferry messages between your brain and your spinal cord and your muscles, slowly weaken and dies, causing gradual paralysis and eventual respiratory failure, typically within five years of the diagnosis.Ninety percent of the cases develop “out of the blue”, says Dr. Jeffery Rothstein, director and founder of the Robert Packard Center of ALS Research at John Hopkins. It’s not clear what causes motor neurones to stop working properly, but researchers believe it could have something to do with faulty genes.

‘Neurodegeneration’ affects basic muscle activities, such as:

 Walking
 Gripping or picking up objects
 Breathing
Swallowing
— Speaking

As the condition progresses, people with motor neurone disease will find some or all of these activities increasingly difficult. Eventually, they may become impossible.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms develop gradually over a period of months, usually appearing on one side of the body first before getting progressively worse. Early signs of motor neurone disease include:

Difficulty in picking up objects
Weakness or the inability to lift arms
 Slurred speech
Dragging of the legs

Because it’s a progressive disease, those diagnosed with the condition may eventually be unable to move. Other basic bodily functions like swallowing, breathing and communicating will become increasingly impossible. There’s no all-in-one diagnostic test for MND. Instead, doctors work by ruling out other illnesses with similar symptoms (eg. a herniated disk or Lyme disease).

Is there a cure? 

Sadly there is currently no cure for the motor neurone disease and it is a severely life-shortening condition for most people. Life expectancy for about half of those with the condition is three years from the start of symptoms.

What preventative measures can you take?

Eating brightly coloured, antioxidant-rich produce may help ward off or delay the MND symptoms, per research. Higher intakes of the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and flaxseed may also reduce your risk, possibly by curbing inflammation and free radicals — two forces that may attack neurons. Oh, and kick the butts: Smoking has been linked to MND, says Rothstein.

Looking for more info on other rare conditions? Here’s what you need to know about Hashimoto’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

If you’d like to know more about motor neurone disease or donate money to MND research, visit the J9 Foundation.

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