For anyone diagnosed with a serious health condition, the associated medical terminology can often be challenging to understand and come to grips with. Most people don’t have a healthcare background and it’s easy to get confused with different terms and what they mean.
This is the case with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and motor neuron disease (MND).
It’s not helped by the fact that the terms are often interchanged depending on whether you are in the US or somewhere else like the UK.
Here we take a closer look at the differences between the two and how understanding what they mean can help you get the information you are looking for.
First of all, motor neuron disease is an umbrella term which covers a range of different conditions, including ALS. Other sub-types of MND include:
Each of these conditions have certain characteristics associated with the path and prognosis of the disease but all fall under the same umbrella term of motor neuron disease. Essentially, this umbrella term means that each of these conditions negatively impact the nervous system and, in particular, motor neurons.
There’s a difference in the way both ALS and MND terms are interchanged, both online and in some medical journals. In Europe and the UK, MND is usually employed as a wholly generic term and ALS is a specific subset of that. In the US, you may be just as likely to hear ALS being used as the more generic MND term.
You are also likely to come across many websites that will use both terms interchangeably and sometimes without much thought.
Motor neuron disease is a generic term for a range of conditions which are defined by the degeneration of motor neurons. There are two types of motor neurons – upper and lower.
Upper motor neurons originate in the motor cortex within the brain and they carry information from the brain down the spinal cord. Lower motor neurons branch out from the spinal cord to the muscles in the body.
MND involves damage to one or both types of motor neuron. Symptoms and causes vary within the different types of motor neuron diseases.
For example, progressive muscular atrophy tends to affect the lower motor neurons which causes muscle wasting. Primary lateral sclerosis affects the upper neurons and results in little or no muscle atrophy.
All, however, involve the degradation and death of the nerves which can have a major impact on the individual. The type of neuron affected will have an impact on the symptoms that are experienced, as is the case with ALS.
ALS is a motor neuron disease in which both upper and lower neurons are affected. Initial symptoms of ALS are often experienced in a localized area such as the fingers or hands and, in some cases, areas of the throat that lead to slurring of speech.
The nerves supplying these local areas become weakened and eventually die. However, ALS does not stay confined to one location, the disease spreads to other parts of the body and eventually leads to full paralysis and death.
ALS affects some 2 in 100,000 of the general population in any given year and there are thought to be around 6 in 100,000 suffering from it at any time. Whilst it can be discovered in younger people, the vast majority of people diagnosed with ALS are over the age of 50.
The prognosis for the disease is not good, with more than half of patients diagnosed dying within three to five years. Less than 10% survive more than ten years following their diagnosis.
There is currently no cure for ALS, but there are treatment options available to help slow down the progression of the disease and alleviate the many associated symptoms.
Assistive technological devices, such as speech generators, can be used in the later stages of the disease and, once breathing becomes compromised, a mechanical breathing machine can also be used. Feeding in these later stages is usually achieved through a feeding tube.