Motor neurone disease

Motor neurone disease (MND) is a rare condition that affects the brain and nerves. It causes weakness that gets worse over time. It can significantly shorten life expectancy, but some people live with it for many years. See your GP if you think you have early symptoms of MND.

Symptoms of MND

Symptoms of motor neurone disease come on gradually and may not be obvious at first.

Early symptoms can include:

  • weakness in your ankle or leg – you might trip, or find it harder to climb stairs
  • slurred speech, which may develop into difficulty swallowing some foods
  • a weak grip – you might drop things, or find it hard to open jars or do up buttons
  • muscle cramps and twitches
  • weight loss – your arms or leg muscles may have become thinner over time
  • difficulty stopping yourself crying or laughing in inappropriate situations

Causes of MND

Motor neurone disease is a rare condition that mainly affects people in their 60s and 70s, but it can affect adults of all ages.

It's caused by a problem with cells in the brain and nerves called motor neurones. These cells gradually stop working over time – this leads to weakness in parts of the body. It's not known why this happens.

Having a close relative with motor neurone disease, or a related condition called frontotemporal dementia, can sometimes mean you're more likely to get it. But it doesn't run in families in most cases.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if:

  • you think you may have early symptoms of motor neurone disease – they'll consider other possible conditions and can refer you to a specialist called a neurologist if necessary
  • a close relative has motor neurone disease or frontotemporal dementia and you're worried you may be at risk of it – they may refer you to a genetic counsellor to talk about your risk and any tests you can have

It's unlikely you have motor neurone disease, but getting a correct diagnosis as early as possible can help you get the care and support you need.

Tests and diagnosis

It can be difficult to diagnose motor neurone disease in the early stages. There's no single test for it and several conditions cause similar symptoms.

To help rule out other conditions, a neurologist may arrange a number of tests, including blood tests and a scan of your brain and spine.

Treatment and support

If you have the condition, you'll be cared for by your GP and a healthcare team, led by a specialist.

There are treatments that can help reduce the impact MND has on your daily life.

Treatments for motor neurone disease include:

  • highly specialised clinics, typically involving a specialist nurse and occupational therapy to help make everyday tasks easier
  • physiotherapy and exercises to maintain strength and reduce stiffness
  • advice from a speech and language therapist or dietitian about diet and eating
  • medication that can slightly slow down the progression of the condition
  • medicines to relieve muscle stiffness and help make swallowing easier
  • emotional support for you and your carer

How MND progresses

Motor neurone disease gets gradually worse over time.

Moving around, swallowing and breathing get increasingly difficult. Over time treatments like a feeding tube or breathing air through a face mask may be needed.

It is a life limiting condition and MND is eventually fatal. But how long it takes to reach this stage varies a lot. It is possible to live for many years or even decades with motor neurone disease.

You might prefer not to know how long you might live. Speak to your GP or care team if you want to find out more.

 Support

Having motor neurone disease can be very challenging for you, your friends and your family.

Speak to your GP or care team if you're struggling to cope and need more support.

You may also find it useful to read more information and advice from the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review May 2021

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