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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:
Experts do not know the cause of ALS. In a few cases, genetics is involved. ALS research is looking into possible environmental causes of ALS.
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:
As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
The symptoms of ALS may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
There is no specific test to diagnose ALS. Your healthcare provider will consider your medical history and symptoms and will do certain tests to rule out other conditions including:
There is no cure for ALS. Over a period of 3 to 5 years, the disease will progress, making voluntary movements of arms and legs impossible. In time, you will need help with personal care, eating, and mobility. Movement of the diaphragm for breathing is also impaired. You may need a ventilator for breathing. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure.
For most people with ALS, the main treatment may involve the management of symptoms, This may include physical, occupational, speech, respiratory, and nutritional therapies. Some medicines, and heat or whirlpool therapy may help relieve muscle cramping. Exercise, in moderation, may help maintain muscle strength and function.
There is no cure and no proven treatment for ALS. However, the FDA approved the medicine riluzole. This is the first drug that has prolonged the survival of people with ALS.
Managing the symptoms of ALS is a process that is challenging for you, your caregivers, and your medical team. However, it’s important to know that there are many community resources available for support and assistance.
Researchers are conducting studies to increase their understanding of genes that may cause the disease, mechanisms that can trigger motor neurons to degenerate in ALS, and approaches to stop the progress leading to cell death.
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.
It is important that you keep your healthcare provider informed about new symptoms so she or he can recommend therapies and community resources appropriately. Most importantly, call your healthcare provider if you start to have trouble breathing.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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