What is ALS?

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a chronic, progressive neurological disease that causes muscle weakness and difficulty with motor function. Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, signs, and progression of ALS.

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What Are the Signs of ALS?

In its earliest stages, ALS is characterized by difficulty walking, weakness in the lower extremities and hands, trouble speaking and slurred speech, trouble eating and swallowing, muscle cramps, and difficulty standing up straight. As the disease progresses, the impact on chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing worsen. However, cognitive function is usually not affected by ALS, meaning those affected continue to think and interact with others normally.

Why Does ALS Occur?

In people with ALS, the nerve cells that control the muscles gradually die. Between 5 to 10 percent of ALS cases are inherited, but experts are unsure what causes the remaining cases to develop. Scientists theorize it may be caused by gene mutation, a chemical imbalance in the brain, an immune system issue, or disorganization of the proteins in the affected nerve cells. ALS is more common among people between the ages of 40 and 60, those who smoke cigarettes, those who have been exposed to lead, and those who have served in the military.

Management of ALS

Because there is no cure for ALS, management of the disease focuses on slowing symptoms, comfort, and independence. One FDA approved drug, riluzole, slows the progression of the disease by correcting a chemical imbalance in the brain. Other medications are prescribed as needed to manage symptoms and side effects. As the disease progresses, breathing treatments such as mechanical ventilation are usually required. Physical therapy can help those with ALS maintain independence for as long as possible, as well as adjust to devices such as wheelchairs and walkers as needed. Occupational therapy can help with home modifications and daily activities such as washing, dressing, and bathing. Speech therapy and nutritional therapy focus on techniques to help accommodate weakening tongue and throat muscles. Many people with ALS also benefit from psychological and social support, especially as the disease progresses.

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