ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that destroys the ability of muscles to function properly. Important nerve cells in the brain and spine controlling movement are gradually damaged and hardened, leading to increasing muscle atrophy.
ALS typically starts innocuously with mild muscle twitching, weakness in extremities, or possibly slurred speech. However, this develops into a total lack of muscle control, including those needed to eat and breathe. Sadly there is no known cure for this terminal illness, but treatment has been shown to improve patient comfort.
The specific signs and symptoms of ALS will differ significantly from person to person, depending on which nerve cells are impacted first. That said, they generally involve trouble doing normal daily activities, increased tripping, weakness in limbs, and muscle cramps.
But other common symptoms are less obvious, including cognitive or behavioral changes — for instance, crying, laughing, or other emotional responses at odd or inappropriate times. Symptoms usually start in the hands or feet and work toward the body.
ALS progressively damages the nerve cells, which control movement. These motor neurons extend from the brain and spinal cord to all the muscles of the body. As function gradually deteriorates over time, the body’s ability to send messages to the muscles is eventually lost.
While researchers don’t yet know what causes ALS, the best theories suggest a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors.
The most well-established risk factor for ALS is heredity, as 5-10% of people with ALS have a family member also diagnosed. Studies of the human genome have also shown that those with ALS tend to have similar genetic variation.
The other major risk factors we understand are also things we have no control over, such as age and sex. Those between the ages of 40 and 65 have the highest risk of developing ALS, while before the age of 65, men are slightly more likely than women to have ALS.
However, researchers have identified a few key things people can do to lower their risk of developing ALS. Smoking is understood to be the biggest risk factor for ALS that can be easily controlled. That said, both environmental toxin exposure and military service have been shown to correlate with developing the condition, although researchers are split on why.
ALS is a relatively rare condition, with only 5,000 new cases being diagnosed in the US every year. That said, estimates suggest only around 16,000 people are currently living with the disease, highlighting its severity.
Given the terminal diagnosis, we must develop new and effective drugs to help slow symptom progression as much as possible. If you believe you or a loved one may be developing ALS, you must contact your doctor as soon as possible. Only they can provide the proper testing and options moving forward.