By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
There is currently no known cure for motor neurone disease and treatment is aimed at easing symptoms and helping patients to cope with problems such as difficulty speaking, swallowing or moving about.
Most people who develop the condition do not survive beyond three or four years after the start of symptoms, although in some cases patients live for up to 10 years or even longer. One of the most well-known survivors who has lived with this disease for more than four decades is Professor Stephen Hawking.
A drug called riluzole has been shown to benefit some patients, although the treatment cannot stop the disease progressing. Riluzole works by blocking the effects of the neurotransmitter glutamate on nerves. All nerve cells communicate using special chemical messengers called neurotransmitters and people with motor neurone disease have an increased sensitivity to the neurotransmitter glutamate. Reducing the patient’s sensitivity to riluzole is thought to slow down the damage caused to motor neurons. Riluzole has been shown to extend the lifespan of people suffering form this condition by several months.
Various medications can be used to provide symptom relief such as quinine for muscle cramp and baclofen to relax muscles. Breathing difficulties can be relieved with the use of a non-invasive ventilation system and patients who find they drool saliva may benefit from the use of a hyoscine hydrobromide skin patch, botulinum injections or atropine eye drops.
The team that deals with the management of motor neurone disease is usually multidisciplinary, with the following individuals often involved:
Neurologists to perform routine assessments
Speech-language therapists to help with speech difficulties
Physical therapists who help with muscle weakness, spasticity, stiffness, joint aches and pain
Occupational therapists who help patients perform daily activities
Dieticians who devise healthy and nutritious diet plans
Respiratory therapists who help clear respiratory secretions and increase respiratory reserve
Psychologists who help a patient cope with the diagnosis and progression of the disease
Palliative care specialists who provide symptoms relief in end-of-life stages
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Mar 25, 2014