ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This disease affects the neurons that are responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movements such as chewing, walking, and talking. This condition causes upper and lower motor neurons to degenerate or die and stop sending messages to the muscles. Over time this makes the muscles weaker, causing twitches and ultimately the muscles atrophy. Eventually, this makes it impossible for the brain to initiate or control movements.
It is estimated that about 15,000 people in the United States have ALS. ALS can begin at any age but it is most common to develop around the ages of 55-75. There are two kinds of ALS, sporadic and familial or genetic ALS. About 90% or more of ALS cases are considered sporadic, meaning that they occur randomly with no associated risk factors or family history for this condition. The remaining 10% of cases are considered familial or genetic with people inheriting this condition from their parents. Only one parent must carry the gene responsible for the disease for it to be passed down. While a majority of ALS cases are sporadic it is important to know if you have a family history of this condition to properly assess your possible risks for developing this disease.
The onset of ALS can be quite slow and subtle but there are many symptoms to watch out for. Common early symptoms include muscle twitches, muscle cramps, tight and stiff muscles, slurred or nasal speech, and difficulty chewing or swallowing. For many people, it is common for symptoms to occur first in the arm, hand, or leg and then progress over time. As this condition progresses it will continue to affect more parts of the body. Eventually, this leads to problems with moving, swallowing, speaking, and breathing.
ALS is typically diagnosed through a detailed medical history of symptoms along with a physical examination. Many of the symptoms of ALS can be similar to other diseases making it crucial for doctors to examine the symptoms carefully to rule out other possible options. Physicians will conduct exams such as muscle and imaging tests, lab tests, and tests for other possible conditions to assess if ALS is the true diagnosis. Additionally, doctors will perform neurological tests over time to assess if the condition is worsening.
As of now, there is no cure for ALS. However, there are many treatments that can help mitigate discomfort and decrease negative symptoms to make living with ALS more comfortable. A team of professionals helps work with patients to create personalized plans to aid with these symptoms. There are medications available that help to reduce damage to neurons, aid with muscle cramps, pain, and other symptoms to help those with ALS live as comfortably as possible. Additionally, physical therapy and speech therapy can help those living with ALS maintain their independence and improve their communication. Furthermore, because ALS can affect chewing and swallowing many people with ALS will lose weight. When they lose weight it is shown that they get much weaker, making it important for them to work with nutritionists to find foods that will be easy for them to eat and enjoy to ensure they maintain a healthy weight.
It is important to assess your family history for ALS early on to understand if you have a possible risk for this condition. Because a majority of the cases of this condition are sporadic it is crucial to understand the symptoms of this condition to ensure early detection. Through therapy, medication, proper nutrition, and help from professionals, there are many ways to help mitigate possible discomfort caused by ALS.
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