Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Understanding ALS -- Diagnosis & Treatment

How Is ALS Diagnosed?

To diagnose ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a neurologist will administer an electromyogram (EMG), which is used to detect nerve damage. Additional tests can rule out muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord tumors, or other diseases.

What Are the Treatments for ALS?

Although no treatment slows or halts the progression of ALS, various drugs and devices are available to help control symptoms and make living with the disease easier.

Conventional Medicine for ALS

Rilutek (riluzole) is an approved drug for the treatment of ALS. How it works is not exactly known, but it seems to prevent the damage that can result from the nerve cell being overexcited by glutamate. Studies have shown it may improve functioning and survival. Because of potential side effects involving the liver, close monitoring by your doctor is required.

Physical therapy can improve circulation and help prolong muscle use in the early stages of ALS. In addition, various medications may be prescribed as the disease progresses to help with symptoms. Baclofen relieves stiffness in the limbs and throat. Muscle decline and weight loss can be slowed with nutritional supplements called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Phenytoin may ease cramps. Tricyclic antidepressants can help control excess saliva production, one of the symptoms of ALS. Antidepressants may also be prescribed to help with depression, which often accompanies a severe illness.

A highly controversial experimental therapy involves synthetic forms of an insulin-like nerve growth factor called cell-derived neurotrophic factor; it may protect motor neurons and stimulate the regeneration of damaged cells.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on March 19, 2015

Sources

SOURCES: 

Miller, R. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Ed. 1, 2005. 

Cecil Textbook of Medicine (Single Volume) Edition 22, 2004.

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