Are There Any Treatments for ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease that attacks the nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. There is no known cure.

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 only one drug that can help slow down ALS.

It’s called riluzole (Rilutek). It’s 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

Pain relievers or muscle relaxants such as baclofen (Gablofen, Kemstro, Lioresal) or diazepam (Diastat, Valium) can help ease cramps.

A variety of medications can lower how much saliva you make. It often builds up in your mouth as swallowing becomes more difficult. One of the most common medications is glycopyrrolate (Robinul).

Doctors may prescribe drugs to help ease other symptoms of ALS, which may include:

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Therapies

Most treatments for ALS involve managing the symptoms of the disease as it worsens. Some of them include:

Physical therapy and exercise: These keep your muscles strong and working as long as possible.

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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on November 06, 2016

Sources

SOURCES: 

LS Association: “Quick Facts About ALS.”

Mayo Clinic: “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: Treatment.”

CDC: “Prevalence of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis -- United States, 2012–2013.”

Johns Hopkins University, Robert Packard Center for Treatment of ALS.

National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke: “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Fact Sheet.”

University of California, San Francisco Medical Center: “ALS.”

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