MINUTES ON... Motor neurone disease.
In motor neurone disease there's progressive degeneration of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord that control muscles, leading to weakness and wasting (thinning) of the muscles. Some types of motor neurone disease are inherited. What are the symptoms?
In the initial stage of the disease, there's weakness and wasting, developing over a few months, usually affecting muscles of the hands, arms or legs. There may be twitching movements in the muscles, stiffness and muscle cramps, difficulty performing twisting movements, such as unscrewing bottle tops and turning keys.
Then, as the disease progresses, there is dragging of one foot or a tendency to stumble when walking, difficulty climbing stairs or getting up from low chairs, and possibly slurred speech and difficulty swallowing. The head may fall forward because the muscles in the neck are too weak to support it and, eventually, difficulty in breathing due to weakness of the muscles that control respiration.
What's the treatment?
At present, no treatment can significantly slow down the progression of motor neurone disease, although a new drug called riluzole may have some benefit. Treatment for symptoms may include antidepressants to relieve depression and antibiotics to treat chest infections. A gastrostomy may be done to treat difficult swallowing. This is a surgically created opening through which a permanent feeding tube is inserted directly into the stomach or the small intestine.
The patient may be given physiotherapy to help keep joints and muscles supple.
Usually, a team of specialists will be available to provide support and care for a patient and members of their family. Counselling may be offered to both.