Lou Gehrig's disease, named after the baseball star who famously contracted the illness in 1938, is known universally as motor neurone disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It impairs communication between the nerves and the muscles, gradually wasting the musculature of the sufferer. The disease is fatal, often due to respiratory failure, as the muscles around the lungs weaken and collapse.
It causes progressive physical disability, starting with the extremities and limbs. Over a period of around five years, it continues to degrade the face, neck and shoulder muscles, before moving further inward to the core muscles that facilitate organ function.
One or two people per 100,000 are diagnosed with motor neurone disease each year, and it's most common in those over 40.
It's not known exactly what causes motor neurone disease, though there are several theories, and many believe it to be a principally genetic illness.
One theory states that free radical damage to the nervous system is the main cause. Another suggests that an increase of glutamate may be to blame.
Glutamate is a crucial chemical in the transmission of messages and signals around the nervous system. If unregulated, however, an excess of glutamate can turn the cells 'excitotoxic', meaning over stimulated. This has been shown to cause damage to the brain and spinal chord, and potentially trigger motor neurone disease.
Following a motor neurone disease diagnosis, the nerve cells responsible for sending signals to the muscles gradually die. Early symptoms include decreased co-ordination, and difficulty with tasks such as throwing and catching, or writing by hand. Concurrent with this, a sufferer may feel wobbly or unsteady, and perhaps fall for no particular reason.
Twitches and cramps may afflict the affected muscles, and stiffness will ensue.
As the condition worsens, physical activity such as climbing stairs or walking long distances may become impossible without assistance. Ultimately, a wheelchair will be required. Slurred speech is common, whilst eating and drinking becomes more of a challenge as the muscles in the face, neck and throat start to die.
Ultimately, the sufferer may be rendered completely paralysed and immobile. Often motor neurone disease causes death by respiratory failure as the muscles that serve the respiratory system waste away.
Despite the extensive physical damage caused by the illness, the sufferer will maintain control of their bladder and bowel, whilst intellect and brain function also remain unimpaired.
Unfortunately there is no known cure or prevention for motor neurone disease. But there are a number of ways to slow down the progression of the condition, and maintain physical activity for as long as possible.
Occupational therapy is a clear way of enhancing the lifestyle of a motor neurone disease sufferer. Keeping muscles and joints active and applying palliative care to aches and strains is integral. Physical aids such as walking sticks will also maximise the faculties of movement as the illness progresses.
Managing decline is the way to deal with motor neurone disease. Seeking support and positivity from those around you, and keeping physically and mentally active will ensure that your quality of life need not be wholly compromised.
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