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Joost van der Westhuizen's battle casts the spotlight on motor neurone disease -Here's what you need to know...

by , 22 August 2013

Former Springbok Captain, Joost van der Westhuizen has spoken out about his battle with motor neurone disease. He told the BBC it's been a rollercoaster from day one and now he's on his deathbed. The 42-year-old was diagnosed with deadly condition two years ago. The South African rugby hero's fighting spirit has firmly put the spotlight on motor neurone disease. Here are the important facts you should need to know about the disease…

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Joost van der Westhuizen was the archetypal Springbok. He was so successful, his name became a byword for brilliance, total commitment and supreme physicality. Now, the 42-year-old is confined to a wheelchair, struggles with his speech and barely has the strength to hold a sandwich or lift a drink, reports BBCSport.

His body has been ravaged by the debilitating effects of motor neurone disease, a condition many South Africans didn’t know about until Joost got it.

Here’s what your should know about motor neurone disease (MND)

MND is the name for a rare condition in which parts of your nervous system become damaged, causing progressive weakness, usually with muscle wasting.

The disease occurs when specialist nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord, called motor neurones stop working properly, explains NHS .Motor neurones control important muscle activity such as:

  • Gripping
  • Walking
  • Speaking
  • Swallowing
  • Breathing

As damage progresses, symptoms spread to other parts of your body and the condition becomes more debilitating. This makes it difficult for you to swallow, breath, move or talk.

What causes MND?

According to the South African Motor Neurone Disease Association, the cause of MND is unknown.

But it’s been linked to:

  • Toxins from the environment.
  • Trauma
  • A virus which lies hidden in your system for many years.
  • A premature degeneration of nerve cells caused by some in-born defect in their constitution.

What are the symptoms of MND?

MND presents itself in various ways depending on the groups of muscle fibres which degenerate initially, says the Association.

Weakness of your hand muscles, stiffness in your legs and weakness in your legs may be the initial symptoms. The Association adds that sometimes the muscles in your tongue and your swallowing mechanism are affected early with slurring of speech, difficulty in swallowing and coughing.

Are you at risk of MND?

The majority of people with MND are aged 50 years and older but occasionally people in their 20s and 30s develop MND. It’s not known why an individual gets MND.

Is there treatment for MND?

At the moment, there’s no treatment available to treat MND. But doctors give their patients medication to cope with the symptoms.

Do you live long after you’ve been diagnosed with MND?

According to NHS, MND is a severely life-shortening condition for most people. Life expectancy for about half of those with the condition is three to four years from the start of symptoms. But some may live for up to 10 years, and others even longer.

While living with the condition is challenging and frustrating as you can’t do things you normally did by yourself, it’s possible to still enjoy quality of life. You can do this with support from your family. You can also contact organisations such as the South African Motor Neurone Disease Association. Van der Westhuizen has also set up the J9 Foundation to promote awareness around the disease.

If you notice any of the signs of MND, consult your doctor right away so he can rule out the possibility of MND or help you manage the disease if your test positive for it.

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