What is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?
lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease in which certain nerve cells in the
brain and spinal cord slowly die. These nerve cells are called motor neurons,
and they control the muscles that allow you to move the parts of your body. ALS
is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
People with ALS gradually
become more disabled. How quickly the disease gets worse is different for
everyone. Some people live with ALS for several years. But over time, ALS makes
it hard to walk, speak, eat, swallow, and breathe. These problems can lead to
injury, illness, and eventually death. In most cases, death will occur within 3 to 5 years after symptoms begin, although some people do live for many years, even decades.
It can be very scary to
learn that you have ALS. Talking with your doctor, getting counseling, or
joining a support group may help you deal with your feelings. Your family
members may also need support or counseling as your disease gets worse.
ALS is rare. Each year in the United States and most of
the world, only 1 to 2 people out of 100,000 get ALS. Men get ALS slightly more
often than women do. ALS can occur at any age, but it most often starts in
middle-aged and older adults.1
What causes ALS?
Doctors don't know what causes
ALS. In about 1 case out of 10, it runs in families.1 This means that 9 times out of 10, a person with ALS
doesn't have a family member with the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The first sign of ALS is
often weakness in one leg, one hand, the face, or the tongue. The weakness
slowly spreads to both arms and both legs. This happens because as the motor
neurons slowly die, they stop sending signals to the muscles. So the muscles
don't have anything telling them to move. Over time, with no signals from the
motor neurons telling the muscles to move, the muscles get weaker and
Over time, ALS also causes:
- Muscle twitching.
- Trouble using
your hands and fingers to do tasks.
- Problems with speaking,
swallowing, eating, walking, and breathing.
ALS doesn't cause numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling.
Respiratory problems are the most common serious complication of ALS. As the muscles in the throat and chest weaken, swallowing, coughing, and breathing problems tend to get worse. Pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, lung failure, and heart failure (probably caused by weak breathing) are the most common causes of death.
How is ALS diagnosed?
It can be hard for your
doctor to tell if you have ALS. It may not be clear that you have the disease
until symptoms get worse or until your doctor has done more testing. To find
out if you have ALS, your doctor will do a physical exam and will ask you about
your symptoms and past health. You will also have tests that show how your
muscles and nerves are working.