What is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Symptoms of ALS
The main treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) includes the management of symptoms.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease is a progressive, fatal type of motor neuron disease. ALS affects motor neurons, which control voluntary muscles. These muscles help with functions, such as chewing, talking, and moving arms and legs.

Symptoms worsen gradually, causing difficulty walking, swallowing, and, eventually, breathing.

Most people with ALS die because of a lack of oxygen supply to the lungs, which causes respiratory failure. ALS can occur at any age, but it is most common in people aged 40 to 70 years.

Symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) symptoms begin with weakness in one limb, followed by weakness in the other limb several weeks to months later. The initial problem is not always a weakness in the limbs. Sometimes, the initial problem is slurred speech and difficulty swallowing.

As the condition progresses, the symptoms’ severity increases.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Involving hands and legs
    • Loss of muscle control
    • Muscle cramping and twitching
    • Difficulty moving
  • Uncontrolled episodes of crying and laughing
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty projecting voice

As the disease progresses, the symptoms could be severe and include:

What are the types of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

  1. Sporadic: A common form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Affects approximately 90 to 95 percent of people with ALS. These cases have no known cause and no ALS family history.
  2. Familial: Also called genetic ALS. About 5 to 10 percent of people with ALS are affected by this type.
  3. Guamanian: The most common type seen in Guam and territories of the Pacific.

What causes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

Researchers do not know the exact cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS could be caused by genetic or environmental factors or a combination of both.

Genetic factors include mutation or gene changes that lead to motor neuron breakdown.

Environmental factors include being exposed to certain chemicals or experiencing physical trauma that causes motor neuron damage, resulting in ALS.

What are the risk factors for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

The following are the risk factors for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS):

  • Heredity: About 5 to 10 percent of people with ALS have a family history of the disease, and their children have a 50 percent chance of getting it.
  • Age: Commonly affects people in their 40s to 70s.
  • Gender: Men are at higher risk than women before 65 years. Everyone older than 65 years is at risk.
  • Environment:
    • Smoking is one of the environmental risk factors for ALS and is mostly seen in women after menopause.
    • Some studies report that exposure to toxins in the workplace or at home may increase the risk of ALS, but no single chemical substance is consistently linked with ALS.
    • A few studies have reported that people working in military services are at a high risk of the condition. This might be due to traumatic injuries and harmful substances, metals, or chemicals.

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How is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and your healthcare provider will do a physical examination and ask for symptoms to rule out other conditions.

They may order a few tests, such as:

  • Blood and urine examinations
  • Electromyogram to know the activity of the nerves
  • Nerve conduction testing to determine the ability of nerves to transmit signals
  • MRI to check the area of damage caused in the brain and spinal cord

How is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis treated?

The main treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) includes the management of symptoms that include physical, occupational, respiratory, and nutritional therapies.

Some medications are used to reduce muscle cramps. Exercise may improve muscle strength and functioning.

There is no cure for the disease. The FDA has currently approved six drugs to treat ALS and its symptoms, which include:

  • Relyvrio
  • Rilutek
  • Radicava
  • Exservan
  • Tiglutik
  • Nuedexta

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Medically Reviewed on 11/16/2022
References
Image Source: iStock image

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354022

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16729-amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis-als

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis-als