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Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Month: symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Posted: 24/06/2021

June is national Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Awareness Month, an initiative organised by the MND Association to encourage greater understanding of this terminal and degenerative disease.

MND is a condition that affects specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurones. Messages from these cells gradually stop working properly and stop reaching the muscles, resulting in progressive muscle weakness, stiffness and wasting. MND can therefore affect an individual’s ability to walk, speak, swallow and even breathe. The failure of motor neurones is referred to as neurodegeneration and, as the condition progresses, individuals with MND may find some or all of these activities increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, MND can significantly shorten an individual’s life expectancy.

This condition affects up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time. Patients are predominantly in their 60s and 70s but it can affect adults of any age. Up to one in ten individuals who have MND may have a family history of the disease or a family history of a related condition called frontotemporal dementia.

Symptoms of MND happen gradually and may present as isolated and unexplained at first. Early symptoms can include muscle weakness; speech and communication problems; swallowing difficulties; muscle cramps and spasms; weight loss; saliva problems; breathlessness and fatigue. If an individual believes they are experiencing the early symptoms of MND, they should contact their GP as soon as possible so that this can be investigated. While it is unlikely that they will have MND, obtaining a correct diagnosis as early as possible can help them get the care, support and treatment they need to achieve the best possible quality of life if they are affected.

It can be difficult to diagnose MND in the early stages as several conditions cause similar symptoms. Although there is no single test to work out if an individual has this condition, there are a range of investigations and tests that a neurologist can arrange to help rule out other conditions including blood tests, nerve conduction tests and MRI scans of the brain and spine.

While it cannot be stopped or reversed, there are therapies, medication and equipment, such as a breathing mask or feeding tube, that can help manage MND symptoms and reduce the impact the disease has on an individual’s daily life. Some people live with the condition for many years.

Varisha Gorasia, an associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches Cooper, said: “Early diagnosis is extremely important so that the individual and their family can come to terms with what is happening and can make any necessary provisions and arrangements for the future. A delay in diagnosis can prevent an individual from accessing the care and support they require to manage their symptoms which can in turn lead to unnecessary pain and suffering and can also potentially lead to a reduction in life expectancy. As this disease is rare, some healthcare professionals may not see many cases of MND. Where they suspect that an individual may have MND, they should refer them promptly to neurological services so that specialist investigations can be carried out.”

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