Motor neurone disease

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, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Motor neurone disease (MND) damages the nerves that control body movement, causing muscle weakness that gets worse over time. Learn about the symptoms, treatment and long-term outlook for people with motor neurone disease

What is motor neurone disease?

Motor neurone disease is a progressive neurological condition affecting the nerves that control body movement (called motor neurons). As the nerves are attacked, it prevents messages from reaching the muscles, making it harder for them to work and causing them to get weaker over time.

There are 4 main different types of MND. The most common type is called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

What are the symptoms of motor neurone disease?

Symptoms of MND affect people differently and progress at different rates. The most common symptom is muscle weakness that gradually gets worse over time. 

Early on, motor neurone disease symptoms include:

  • Weakness in your hands and arms – Including a weak grip, where you find it harder to hold onto things, open jars or turn keys

  • Weakness in your legs and ankles – Making it harder to walk, climb stairs and stand up from sitting

  • Weakness in the facial muscles – Affecting your speech and making it harder to swallow food

  • Muscle cramps

  • Twitching and jerking movements

  • Tiredness

  • Weight loss

  • Suddenly laughing or crying at random moments

At first, muscle weakness may only affect one part of your body, like your arm or leg, and eventually more muscles in your body become affected.

Problems that can develop later include:

  • Increased problems with mobility and walking

  • Difficulty doing daily tasks with your hands 

  • The tongue and muscles around the mouth get weak, making it hard to eat and swallow

  • The chest muscles become affected, causing breathlessness and breathing difficulties

MND does not affect all parts of the body. The following usually don't change:

  • Intellect – The brain’s thinking ability isn’t usually affected, but a small number of people with MND can develop a type of dementia

  • Senses – You should still see, feel, hear, taste and smell as normal

  • Bladder and bowel function – Incontinence is not a common symptom, although mobility issues in the later stages of MND can cause continence problems

  • Sexual function

What causes motor neurone disease?

It’s not known exactly why the motor neurons become damaged and stop working, but ongoing research continues to look at the possible reasons for this. It can affect adults of all ages but tends to be more common in the 60s and 70s. 

Is motor neurone disease hereditary?

Generally, MND isn’t inherited and doesn’t run in families. In a small number of cases, having a relative with the condition can increase your chance of developing it.

Who gets motor neurone disease?

MND is not a common condition, but it can affect anyone at any age. It’s most likely to develop in:

  • People in their 60s and 70s

  • Men

How is motor neurone disease diagnosed?

It’s challenging to diagnose MND as there are no tests that confirm it, and the symptoms are similar to a range of other conditions. If MND is suspected then a GP will refer you to a neurologist for further monitoring. Sometimes the diagnosis is only confirmed over time as symptoms develop. 

There are several tests that a doctor may recommend to rule out other conditions. These include:

  • Blood tests

  • MRI scan

  • Lumbar puncture so that the spinal fluid can be analysed

  • Measuring the electrical activity in your muscles and nerves, using tests called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and nerve conduction studies

  • Electromyography looks at the nerve conduction in your muscles

Motor neurone disease treatment

There’s no cure for MND, but different treatments can help to reduce symptoms. These include:

  • Physiotherapy – Physical exercises to help strengthen muscles and ease stiffness

  • Occupational therapy – Making adaptations around the home to make daily life easier

  • Speech and language therapy – Exercises to help with slurred speech or swallowing problems

  • Medication – Some medications can be used to help slow down the progression of MND for a short period of time, and other medicine may be recommended to help ease cramps and muscles stiffness or treat saliva problems

  • Respiratory care – Using an overnight mask ventilator system while you’re sleeping

Motor neurone disease life expectancy and outlook

MND progresses differently for everyone, and you may go through periods where the progression of the disease seems to slow down. But unfortunately, it’s a fatal disease that eventually develops into severe disability and shortens life expectancy. 

Motor neurone disease life expectancy is extremely variable. A specialist will be able to talk you through your individual circumstances in more detail and help you find the treatment and support that’s best for your needs.

Support for living with motor neurone disease

It can be a challenge living with a progressive disease like MND, but there’s lots of support available to help you come to terms with the diagnosis and cope with the condition. 

Talk to a doctor or contact the Motor Neurone Disease Association to find out what’s available, including online support groups, telephone helplines and local support groups.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
undefined, Lead GP at Livi