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Neuromuscular system

6-minute read

Key facts

  • The neuromuscular system connects muscles and nerves, which control body movements and functions.
  • Nerves called motor neurons send messages from the brain to muscles, making them contract and move.
  • Neuromuscular disease includes nerve and muscle problems, causing weakness and pain.
  • Neuromuscular diseases can cause tiredness, muscle weakness, cramps and pain, and in severe cases trouble breathing and swallowing.
  • There is no current cure for many neuromuscular disorders — treatments are used to help improve quality of life.

What is the neuromuscular system?

The neuromuscular system includes all the muscles in the body and the nerves connecting them.

Every movement the body makes, needs communication between the brain and the muscles. The nervous system links thoughts and actions by sending messages (as electrical impulses) from the brain to other parts of the body.

Nerves and muscles work together in the neuromuscular system to make your body move as you want it to, and manage important functions such as breathing.

How does the neuromuscular system work?

Nerves are cells called neurons. Neurons carry messages to and from the brain through the spinal cord to muscles in your body.

Outgoing messages travel from the brain along the motor pathways to activate the muscles of the body. The neurons that make up these pathways are called motor neurons.

Incoming messages are sent from the senses (your eyes, and nose, for example) back to the spinal cord and brain come along the sensory pathways. These are called sensory neurons.

Each motor neuron ending sits very close to a muscle fibre. Where they sit together is called a neuromuscular junction. The motor neurons release a chemical, which is picked up by the muscle fibre. This signals the muscle fibre to contract, which makes the muscles move.

Illustration showing a boy catching a ball, after the messages were carried from the brain to the muscles.
Neurons carry messages from the brain via the spinal cord. These messages are carried to muscles, which tell the muscle fibre to contract, which makes the muscles move.

What diseases involve the neuromuscular system?

Many different diseases affect the neuromuscular system, and together they are known as neuromuscular diseases.

Some examples of neuromuscular diseases are:

What are the symptoms of neuromuscular disease?

If you have a neuromuscular disease, your symptoms will vary depending on what nerves and muscles are affected and what type disease you have. You may have problems with tiredness, weakness, muscle pain, muscle wasting and spasms.

In some neuromuscular diseases, the nerves are damaged, and do not carry messages from the brain as they should. In others, the muscles are damaged, and they either cannot receive messages from motor neurons, or they cannot respond as they should.

In severe cases, neuromuscular diseases can lead to difficulties in swallowing, speaking and breathing.

Treatments usually try to reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with neuromuscular diseases. In many cases there is no cure.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are concerned or notice any new muscle weakness, spasms, twitching or pain, you should speak with your doctor. If your child has these symptoms, speak with their GP, paediatrician or early child health nurse.

How can I prevent neuromuscular problems?

There are many of genetic changes that can cause neuromuscular disorders and unfortunately, there is no cure or way to prevent neuromuscular disorders. Treatments may be available to help reduce your symptoms. If you are concerned or experience any unusual symptoms speak with your doctor.

Resources and support

Read more on neuromuscular disorders here:

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Last reviewed: August 2023


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