But doctors do have treatments and therapies that can slow down or ease symptoms in you or a loved one.
Researchers continue to study ALS, hoping to learn more about its causes and possible new treatments.
What Is ALS?
It’s commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the baseball player whose diagnosis and eventual death brought wide public attention to the illness.
This condition kills the nerves that control motion in your body. As those nerves die, you lose control of your muscles. As the disease worsens, you lose the ability to walk, speak, swallow, and eventually, to breathe.
About 1 person in 25,000 will be diagnosed with ALS. Most of them die within 2 to 5 years of being diagnosed, usually because of respiratory failure. However, a small group, about 5% of those with ALS, have been able to survive for 20 years or more.
Medication for ALS
U.S. officials have approved just two drugs that can help slow down ALS.
The first, approved in 1995, is called riluzole (Rilutek). More recently, the FDA has approved edaravone (Radicava). Both are designed to reduce damage to your motor nerve cells by lowering the amount of a substance called glutamate in your system.
Glutamate carries chemical messages to your nerves -- it helps them “talk” to each other. But if you have too much glutamate, it can hurt your nerve cells.
Riluzole has been on the market since 1995. It’s been shown to extend the life of people with ALS by several months and push back the time when you’ll need mechanical help to breathe. But it can’t fix damage already done and is not a cure.
Medication for Symptoms
Doctors may prescribe drugs to help ease other symptoms of ALS, which may include:
Most treatments for ALS involve managing the symptoms of the disease as it worsens. Some of them include:
Hot tub and whirlpool baths: These can ease your muscle spasms or cramps.
Dietary counseling: This becomes really important when swallowing becomes a problem.
Speech therapy: Specialists can help you learn ways to make your speech more clear when you talk or other methods of communicating, such as writing with pen and paper or an alphabet board.
Occupational therapy: This can help you find ways to dress, bathe, and groom. A therapist can help you set up your home so it’s easier for you or a loved one to move around.
Tools and Devices
There are also a variety of tools and mechanical devices that can help if you have ALS:
Splints, reach extenders, and grab-bars: They can help you get around as the disease progresses.
Canes, walkers, and wheelchairs: They can help you stay mobile even as your ability to walk fades.
Computerized voice synthesizers: These are available when you lose the ability to speak. In the final stages of the illness, only about a quarter of people can talk clearly enough to be understood.
Respirator: It may be needed in the late stage of the disease to help you breathe. A doctor will have to insert a breathing tube directly into your windpipe.
Feeding tube: As swallowing becomes harder, you might also need a doctor to insert a feeding tube into your stomach.