Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a degenerative condition that gradually affects the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord. As the disease progresses, it causes the loss of strength and the gradual inability to control the arms, legs and body. It eventually leads to paralysis and death. It is often called “Lou Gehrig’s disease” because of the famous New York Yankee first baseman who developed the disease in the 1930s.
Causes and Symptoms
The exact cause of ALS is unknown, but a number of studies have looked into whether everything from genetics to environmental factors has a role in causing ALS. Recently, researchers have been able to identify the gene mutations that are present in individuals with ALS. What causes these gene mutations, however, is currently unclear.
When someone develops ALS, however, the disease typically follows a fairly common progression. It often starts with subtle signs such as muscle weakness, tightness or cramping in muscles, difficult chewing or swallowing and slurred or nasal speech. As the nerves continue to degenerate over several months or years, the person gradually loses the ability to walk, to stand on their own or use their arms. Difficulty chewing, swallowing and maintaining weight are also commonly seen in those with ALS.
Typically, a person remains cognitive and well aware of what is happening to them as the disease progresses. This can lead to issues like anxiety and depression, which are common in people with ALS. In later stages of the disease, someone with ALS may experience full paralysis and lose the ability to breathe on their own. Most people with ALS die within 3 to 5 years of the onset of symptoms, usually of respiratory failure.
There is currently no cure for ALS, but one available medication, riluzole, can slow the progression of the disease, and many more are being investigated. There are also a number of devices, treatments and therapies available for those with ALS to help slow the progression of the disease and improve quality of life. Though the outlook is often bleak, many with ALS are still able to live rewarding, fulfilling lives with the disease and live with it for many years.
SOURCES: U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; ALS Association