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Health & Fit: What Is Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease? Singer Alan Jackson Says He Has This Degenerative Nerve Disease

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Country singer Alan Jackson just shared surprising news: He has a degenerative nerve condition that impacts his ability to walk.

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Jackson, 62, told Today that he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) 10 years ago. "I have this neuropathy and neurological disease," Jackson said. "It's genetic that I inherited from my daddy ... There's no cure for it, but it's been affecting me for years. And it's getting more and more obvious."

CMT has left him 'stumbling around on stage,' Jackson said. © Getty Images CMT has left him 'stumbling around on stage,' Jackson said.

Neuropathy is a medical term for damage to the nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord. It usually causes weakness, numbness, and pain, often in the hands and feet, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Jackson said he's been "stumbling around on stage, and now I'm having a little trouble balancing, even in front of the microphone." He added, "I just feel very uncomfortable."

You probably have some questions about Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease after reading this—here's what you need to know, according to doctors.

What is Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease?

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is a group of disorders (named for the researchers who first described it) that cause damage to the peripheral nerves—which are the nerves that help transmit information and signals from your brain and spinal cord to other areas of your body, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

People with the condition tend to develop progressive muscle weakness in their teens or early adulthood, but the disease can start at any age, the NINDS says. The disease usually leads to smaller, weaker muscles, the Mayo Clinic says, and patients may develop loss of sensation, muscle contractions, and difficulty walking.

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"CMT is a genetic disease, which means it will get worse over time," Amit Sachdev, MD, medical director in the department of neurology at Michigan State University, tells Health. And as Alan said in his interview on Today, there's no cure for it, Paul Twydell, DO, a neurologist at Spectrum Health, tells Health.

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What are the symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease?

These are the most common symptoms of the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Weakness in your legs, ankles, and feet
  • Loss of muscle bulk in your legs and feet
  • High foot arches
  • Curled toes (hammertoes)
  • Decreased ability to run
  • Difficulty lifting your foot at the ankle (footdrop)
  • Awkward or higher than normal step (gait)
  • Frequent tripping or falling
  • Decreased sensation or a loss of feeling in your legs and feet

"CMT will cause both issues of sensation and strength," Dr. Sachdev says. Overall, though, Dr. Twydell says that there is a "broad range of severity" with CMT. "Some people develop it in chidhood or adolescence. They typically have more weakness and need orthodics and equipment to help them walk," he says. "Other people don't get diagosed until later in life—they tend to have a milder form of it."

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What causes Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease?

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is an inherited, genetic condition. It happens when there are mutations in the genes that affect the nerves in your feet, legs, hands, and arms. The mutations may damage the nerves or damage the myelin sheath, the protective coating that surrounds the nerve. That can cause weaker messages to travel between the limbs and brain.

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What are the risk factors for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease?

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is inherited, so you're at a higher risk of developing it if someone in your immediate family has the condition.

Conditions like diabetes, which can cause symtoms similar to CMT, could also make symptoms of CMT worse. Medications like chemotherapy drugs vincristine (Marqibo), paclitaxel (Abraxane) can also exacerbate symptoms, the Mayo Clinic says.

How is Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease diagnosed?

A diagnosis can involve a few different tests, including:

  • A physical exam to look for signs of muscle weakness, decreased muscle bulk, and foot deformities
  • Nerve conduction studies to measure the strength and speed of electrical signals transmitted through your nerves
  • Electromyography to measure electrical activity in your muscles
  • A nerve biopsy
  • Genetic testing

"The most common thing we look for when diagnosing CMT is a high arch," Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health. CMT also tends to affect the nerves on the outside of the foot, giving doctors a good clue what may be behind a patient's symptoms. "It's fairly easy to diagnose," Dr. Segil says.

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Given that CMT is an inherited condition, your doctor will also likely ask questions about your family history, Dr. Sachdev says.

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How is Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease treated?

There is no cure for CMT, but patients may be treated with medication to help with nerve pain, the NINDS says. It's also important to maintain mobility, flexibility, and muscle strength. "A healthy body will carry the nerves a long way," Dr. Sachdev explains.

Ankle braces and other orthopedic devices can help people with CMT get around more easily, Dr. Twydell says. Some people with the condition may also have orthopedic surgery to treat severe foot pain and joint deformities.

"It's not going to kill me. It's not deadly," Jackson said of CMT. "But it's related (to) muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's disease."

Jackson also said that he doesn't plan to stop playing live music. "I'm not saying I won't be able to tour," he said. "I'll try to do as much as I can."

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