What are degenerative diseases of the nervous system?
Neurodegenerative diseases encompass a set of ailments that primarily affect brain neurons. Neurons are nerve cells that are the building blocks of the nervous system, which is composed of the spinal cord and the brain. These neurons, in general, are neither replaced nor reproduced, so when they suffer damage the body cannot replace them.
Neurodegenerative diseases cause problems in various activities that the body performs, such as movement, balance, breathing, speaking or heart functions. Neurodegenerative diseases are characterised by being progressive and many of them are genetic.
Some of the most prominent neurodegenerative diseases are:
Most neurodegenerative diseases do not have a cure, although with proper treatment you can improve the symptoms, increase mobility and relieve pain. These diseases are serious and, depending on the pathology, can endanger the patient's life.
Symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases
In many cases it’s difficult to detect early symptoms but, as a neurodegenerative disease progresses, symptoms gradually appear. There are a huge variety of symptoms, which depend on the condition. Some of the most characteristic symptoms are:
- Problems controlling movements: tremors, muscular rigidity, slowness beginning and executing movements, alteration in reflexes and problems with balance.
- Cognitive problems (dementia): impaired memory, disorientation, deficiencies in intellectual abilities, language problems, etc.
- Other secondary symptoms include insomnia, communication problems, eating disorders, urinary problems, difficulty swallowing, depression, distress, among others.
Medical tests for degenerative diseases of the nervous system
The diagnostic process is not simple and is usually long since symptoms are difficult to analyse in the early stages of the disease. In addition, there are several common symptoms in neurodegenerative diseases, which further complicate their diagnosis.
In many cases they are inherited, so doctors make an assessment of the patient's medical history. From there, other complementary tests, such as a blood test or an MRI are performed to rule out alterations due to other pathologies (infections, tumours, etc.).
What are the causes of degenerative diseases of the nervous system?
The causes can be very varied. In many cases the specific cause of a neurodegenerative disease is unknown. However, genetics play a major role, as can environmental issues and ageing.
Other related causes may be:
- A tumour
- Stroke (CVA)
Can a neurodegenerative disease be prevented?
Degenerative diseases of the nervous system cannot be prevented but certain steps can be followed to reduce one's risk of disease, such as:
- Following a diet with less saturated fat: excessive consumption of saturated fats increases oxidative stress, generating damage to neurons.
- Exercising: being active improves neuronal synaptic functions which improves memory and reduces anxiety.
- Getting sufficient amounts of sleep: the right quality and amount of sleep helps to prevent damage to the brain.
- Mental or social activities help prevention. If we don't keep our brain in shape it atrophies.
Treating degenerative diseases of the nervous system
Today, the vast majority of these diseases do not have a cure. However, there are treatments that aim to slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, relieve pain, improve symptoms and extend the autonomy of the patient. Depending on each particular case, different medical-surgical procedures can be used that relieve symptoms or medications can be used to prolong a patient’s ability to perform certain functions.
A diagnosis can cause depression or anxiety and the use of psychotherapy may be necessary.
Psychoeducation is important, both for the patient and for the environment, to know how to treat the disease and the consequences of it. In this way, the level of uncertainty is reduced, facilitating adaptation mechanisms and strategies.
In the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, the use of neuropsychological rehabilitation, physiotherapy, logotherapy and occupational therapy is frequent. All of them are part of a multidisciplinary strategy to prolong and improve the patient's quality of life, as well as their status and independence.
The patient may also need external aids for their day-to-day activities, such as agendas, visual aids and walking aids.
What specialist treats neurodegenerative diseases?
Degenerative diseases of the nervous system should be treated by a multidisciplinary team that may include specialists in neurology, physiotherapy, neurophysiology, psychology and psychiatry.