Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal type of motor neuron disease. It is characterized by progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. It's often called Lou Gehrig's disease, after a famous baseball player who died from the disease. ALS it is one of the most devastating of the disorders that affects the function of nerves and muscles.
ALS does not affect mental functioning or the senses (such as seeing or hearing), and it is not contagious. Currently, there is no cure for this disease.
ALS most commonly affects people of any racial or ethnic group between the ages of 40 and 70, although it can occur at a younger age.
There are 2 main types of ALS:
- Sporadic. This is the most common form of ALS in the U.S., making up 90% to 95% of all cases. These cases occur randomly, without any known cause, and there is no family history of ALS .
- Familial. This form of ALS affects a small amount of people and is thought to be inherited.
With ALS, you may first have weakness in a limb that develops over a matter of days or, more commonly, a few weeks. Then, several weeks to months later, weakness develops in another limb. Sometimes the initial problem can be one of slurred speech or trouble swallowing.
As ALS progresses, though, more and more symptoms are noticed. These are the most common symptoms of ALS:
- Twitching and cramping of muscles, especially those in the hands and feet
- Loss of motor control in the hands and arms
- Impairment in the use of the arms and legs
- Tripping and falling
- Dropping things
- Persistent fatigue
- Uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying
- Slurred or thick speech and trouble in projecting the voice
As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
The symptoms of ALS may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
ALS will eventually lead to disability and death. Although your ability to move and breathe independently will be affected, your intelligence and ability to think is not. You and your family will work closely with your healthcare provider to manage symptoms as they develop. Use of the medicine may prolong your life by a few months, particularly if you have trouble swallowing. Discuss ways to make living spaces more accessible, and use of mobility devices and wheelchairs. It’s very important to discuss end-of-life decisions with your loved ones.