Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.
ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig disease.
One out of 10 cases of ALS is due to a genetic defect. The cause is unknown in most other cases.
In ALS, motor nerve cells (neurons) waste away or die, and can no longer send messages to muscles. This eventually leads to muscle weakening, twitching, and an inability to move the arms, legs, and body. The condition slowly gets worse. When the muscles in the chest area stop working, it becomes hard or impossible to breathe.
ALS affects approximately 5 out of every 100,000 people worldwide.
Having a family member who has a hereditary form of the disease is a risk factor for ALS. Other risks include military service. Some risk factors are controversial.
Symptoms usually do not develop until after age 50, but they can start in younger people. People with ALS have a loss of muscle strength and coordination that eventually gets worse and makes it impossible for them to do routine tasks such as going up steps, getting out of a chair, or swallowing.
Weakness can first affect the arms or legs, or the ability to breathe or swallow. As the disease gets worse, more muscle groups develop problems.
ALS does not affect the senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). Most people are able to think normally, although a small number develop dementia, causing problems with memory.
Muscle weakness starts in one body part, such as the arm or hand, and slowly gets worse until it leads to the following:
Other findings include:
The health care provider will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms.
The physical exam may show:
Tests that may be done include:
There is no known cure for ALS. A medicine called riluzole helps slow the symptoms and helps people live slightly longer.
Two medicines are available that help slow the progression of symptoms and may help people live slightly longer:
Treatments to control other symptoms include:
Physical therapy, rehabilitation, use of braces or a wheelchair, or other measures may be needed to help with muscle function and general health.
People with ALS tend to lose weight. The illness itself increases the need for food and calories. At the same time, problems with choking and swallowing make it hard to eat enough. To help with feeding, a tube may be placed into the stomach. A dietitian who specializes in ALS can give advice on healthy eating.
Breathing devices include machines that are used only at night, and constant mechanical ventilation.
Medicine for depression may be needed if a person with ALS is feeling sad. They also should discuss their wishes regarding artificial ventilation with their families and providers.
Emotional support is vital in coping with the disorder, because mental functioning is not affected. Groups such as the ALS Association may be available to help people who are coping with the disorder.
Support for people who are caring for someone with ALS is also available, and may be very helpful.
Over time, people with ALS lose the ability to function and care for themselves. Death often occurs within 3 to 5 years of diagnosis. About 1 in 4 people survive for more than 5 years after diagnosis. Some people live much longer, but they typically need help breathing from a ventilator or other device.
Complications of ALS include:
Call your provider if:
Increased difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, and episodes of apnea are symptoms that require immediate attention.
You may want to see a genetic counselor if you have a family history of ALS.
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.