Lou Gehrig’s disease, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), is a group of rare neurological diseases that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in the loss of muscle control. It was named after baseball player Lou Gehrig after he was forced to retire after developing the disease in 1939.
It typically begins with muscle twitching, weak limbs or slurred speech. Around half of the people with ALS develop mild difficulties with thinking and behavior, while most people tend to experience pain or lose the ability to walk, use their hands, speak, swallow or even breathe. There is no cure for the disease, but if diagnosed early, you will be able to treat symptoms and retain muscle control a bit longer.
Signs and symptoms of ALS can appear gradually. Those with the disease may notice a sensation in their hands that would make it hard for them to grip onto objects, or they may start slurring their words before other symptoms start to arise. Each person has a different experience with ALS and will, therefore, experience different early symptoms.
Common early symptoms may include:
- Slurred speech
- Muscle cramps or stiffness
- Inability to grip onto objects
- Difficulty swallowing
ALS often starts in the limbs, feet or hands and gradually spreads to other parts of the body. When this happens and the disease advances, nerve cells are destroyed and muscles get weak.
How to Manage ALS Symptoms
In the early stages, there are certain treatments that may help.
Physical therapy and daily exercise will help to keep muscles strong for as long as possible. Physical therapy will mostly focus on the larger muscles that are responsible for walking, standing, etc. Occupational therapy will help with activities that the smaller muscles carry out – this could include gripping utensils, brushing your teeth and so on.
Speech therapy is also useful since the muscles responsible for speech get affected as well. Speech therapy can help those with ALS speak more clearly and can also help manage swallowing difficulties.
Besides non-drug treatments, there are also medications that have been proven to be helpful in slowing ALS from progressing. While they can help manage the disease, they cannot fix any damage that has already taken place.
Radicava, administered through IV, has been shown to slow the rate of decline in patients and removes free radicals from the nervous system, preventing damage to nerve cells, which in turn reduces oxidative stress that is caused by free radicals.
Rilutek, taken orally, helps reduce damage to motor nerves by reducing the amount of glutamate in the system. Common side effects of Rilutek include dizziness, bruising and gastric distress.
Breaking Down ALS
When a person has ALS, the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord essentially break down and die. Because of this, your brain isn’t able to communicate with your muscles anymore, therefore rendering them weak. This muscle atrophy causes the muscles to no longer work and you eventually lose control over muscle movement.
It is common to have more troubles with smaller movements such as turning a key or trying to pick up smaller objects. With ALS, you may fall more often and eventually will not be able to move your arms, legs or body. You may eventually also lose control of your diaphragm, causing breathing problems.
What Are the Types of ALS?
There are two types of ALS.
Sporadic ALS is the most common form of the disease and affects up to 90-95% of people. The name stems from the fact that it can happen without a clear cause.
Familial ALS is the type of ALS that runs between family generations. It is typically caused by changes to genes and is passed on to children by their parents. It accounts for a very small number of cases – around 5-10%.