What Is ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a disease that affects nerve cells responsible for voluntary movement. When ALS sets in, the neurons affiliated with voluntary movement are destroyed, resulting in muscles that are initially weakened and, over time, become completely nonfunctional. The condition can affect anyone at any age, though it typically sets in when an individual is at least 55 years of age. Men are slightly more likely to be affected than women.
Unfortunately, the root cause of ALS is currently unknown. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of cases are inherited, though current research indicates that all individuals predisposed to ALS do not develop it. Rather, ALS seems to develop only when a predisposed individual comes in contact with an environmental trigger. While it is unclear what the triggers are, suspected environmental triggers include:
- Exposure to toxins/pesticides
- Geographic locations
Alcohol and tobacco use, as well as sports and exercise, have also been linked to ALS.
Often starting in the extremities (hands, feet or limbs), ALS eventually spreads throughout the body. As this occurs, the symptoms can be extremely troubling, making even the simplest task impossible. Initial signs of ALS include:
- Clumsiness — Due to weakened muscles in the hands and feet, it becomes difficult to hold things. Tripping and falling may become common.
- Head and neck problems — Swallowing and even holding the head up become difficult. Speech becomes slurred.
- Mobility issues — Weakness in the legs, feet or ankles makes it difficult to walk and perform many daily activities.
- Muscle twitches — Cramping muscles in the arms, shoulders and tongue often result in uncontrollable twitching of these muscles, which leads to other symptoms growing worse.
Though there currently is no cure for ALS, a multifaceted approach provides the best chance at both long-term survival and quality of life. Treatment options include:
- Physical therapy — Because ALS causes muscles to atrophy, exercise is an excellent way to battle the disease’s progression. Under the oversight of a physical therapist, low-impact exercises (walking, swimming, etc.) help maintain strength while improving overall health.
- Occupational therapy — An occupational therapist can help those with ALS continue performing tasks of everyday life, such as tying shoes and climbing stairs. Additionally, occupational therapists can recommend the use of wheelchairs, ramps and other devices to prolong independence.
- Medications — A variety of medications are prescribed to those with ALS. Some provide symptom management by lessening muscle cramps, saliva production, stiffness and involuntary emotional outbursts. Others aim at treating ALS itself by reducing damage to neurons and slowing the progressive decline brought on by ALS. One such medication, riluzole (also known as Rilutek) was shown to extend survival with ALS by a few months, an impressive feat considering survival is typically two to five years after diagnosis.
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