Motor Neuron Disease: Symptoms, Prognosis and Current Treatments

November 12, 2012

Motor Neuron Disease: Symptoms, Prognosis and Current Treatments

There are many different types of motor neuron disease or MNDs but all of them can be fatal. Unfortunately, there are no cures for motor neuron diseases, although there are treatments to help slow down the patient’s deterioration. MNDs are neurological diseases that gradually destroy a patient’s nerve cells, rendering them unable to walk, talk, eat or breathe. MND can strike a person at any age, but appears more often in men than women.

The most famous person in the word living with an MND is theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. Although still alive and working, he is paralyzed in over 90% of his body and needs constant care and nursing. However, his case is atypical of most patients with his particular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.


Motor neuron disease begins very subtly in some clumsiness, slurred speech, drooping eyelids, muscle cramps, food getting constantly stuck in the throat or suffers what seems to be a nervous twitch. Other people may suddenly experience balance problems and need a cane or other walking aid in order to keep from falling.

Symptoms get worse as the MND progresses. It may cause nerves to misfire and cause bizarre ticks, twitches, spasms, or repetitive motions that the patient is completely incapable of stopping. But eventually the nerves stop firing and the muscles are no longer used. They gradually waste away, making the patient thinner and thinner. Patients soon are unable to eat and may need to be fed directly into the stomach. Some patients may become deformed, such as experiencing curvature of the spine. Patients also find breathing to be more and more difficult. Many patients die because they can no longer breathe.


The prognosis is poor for anyone diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. The longest survival rates are for patients with primary lateral sclerosis. They can live an average of 25 years. Patients with other types of MNDs live for considerably less. Professor Stephen Hawking is not considered a typical example since he has lived over 40 years longer than his predicted death age. However, Hawking had contacts in the medical and technological industries that most people do not have.

Perhaps the most fatal type of MND is called spinal muscular atrophy, Type I. This affects babies around six months of age. They die by the age of 2 because they can no longer breathe.


Treatment of motor neuron disease depends on which type of MND a patient has and how quickly the disease progresses. Patients with uncontrollable body or muscle movements are given muscle relaxant medications like benzodiazepine or anti-seizure medications to stop the involuntary movements. MNDs can cause considerable pain, so patients may need opioid painkillers such as morphine to relieve the agony. Patients that have difficulty swallowing may be given medications to reduce saliva production to reduce choking.

The most promising drug is called riluzole but can only extend a patient’s life but cannot cure MND. Patients also need diet changes to help prevent anorexia, nursing, wheelchairs, speech therapy for as long as they can talk and physical therapy for as long as they can move on their own.

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