What is ALS?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the Hall of Fame NY Yankees baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 1930. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in the area of research, treatment or a cure for ALS since that time.

ALS is a Motor Neuron Disease (MND) that affects the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord known as motor neurons. As the disease progresses the nerve cells begin to degenerate resulting in the inability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement. As a result the muscles begin to waste away or atrophy causing increased muscle weakness and paralysis. Muscles that are affected include the legs, feet, arms, hands and those that control swallowing and breathing.

Symptoms of ALS

ALS symptoms can vary from one person to the next and many of the symptoms below can be so slight at the onset that they are overlooked.

  • Weakness or lack of coordination in the arms or legs
  • Muscle cramping or twitching, especially in the hands or feet
  • Slurred speech, difficulty swallowing
  • Foot drop – difficulty lifting the front part of your foot or toes

The disease frequently affects the hands, feet and limbs first. Early signs include frequent tripping, dropping things or unusual weakness in the hands and abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs. ALS can also start with the tongue, known as Bulbar Onset, initially affecting speech, swallowing and breathing, gradually moving to the arms, legs, hands and feet.

How is ALS Diagnosed?

ALS is a difficult disease to diagnose. There is not one definitive test, but rather a series of tests to rule out any other diseases that have similar symptoms. Tests used to make an ALS diagnosis include an Electromyography (EMG) which measures the electrical discharges in the muscles, a nerve conduction study to measure the strength and speed of nerve signals, an MRI of the brain and spinal cord, and blood and urine tests to rule out other diseases. A detailed neurological exam is also performed along with the diagnostic tests. The ALS Association recommends anyone with an initial diagnosis of ALS visit an ALS specialist for a second opinion. The ALS Association website http://www.alsa.org/community/certified-centers/ has a list of Certified Centers of Excellence and ALS Clinics throughout the USA.

Who Does ALS Affect?

Studies show that 90-95% of ALS cases are what’s known as Sporadic, which means it occurs at random with no known cause or risk factors, only 5-10% are Familial or genetic. ALS does not discriminate, it is one of the most common neuromuscular diseases and it affects all races and ethnic backgrounds. It most commonly strikes people between 40 and 70 years old but can also affect people in their 20’s and 30’s. The Department of Veterans Affairs has designated ALS as a service related disability, as it was determined that veterans are twice as likely to develop the disease as non-veterans. Disability compensation is a monetary benefit paid to Veterans who are disabled by an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service. These disabilities are considered to be service connected. For more information on claiming service related benefits visit: http://www.va.gov/opa/publications/benefits_book/benefits_chap02.asp

How is ALS Treated?

Although there are currently no treatments available for ALS there are various drugs and devices that are used to treat the symptoms associated with the disease. ALS Clinics across the country provide a coordinated program of medical treatment rehabilitation techniques and psychological support individualized for each patient. Each center has a team of specialists that include neurology, nursing, respiratory therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, social work and a registered dietician/nutritionist. For an ALS clinic in your area visit:

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