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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - Topic Overview

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What is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Amyotrophic 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 who have 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 smaller.

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