What Is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
a person with ALS may live for about two to five years from the time of diagnosis
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive disorder of the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary movements. It is sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease for the famous baseball player who died of the disease. The muscles become progressively weaker, and the condition eventually leads to paralysis and death.
ALS is one of a group of diseases known as motor neuron diseases. Neurons are nerve cells, and motor neurons are neurons that control movement.
- Movement occurs when neurons in the brain (upper motor neurons) send messages to neurons in the spinal cord (lower motor neurons). The lower motor neurons relay these messages via nerves to the specific muscles that carry out the movement.
- In some motor neuron diseases, only the upper motor neurons are affected, or only the lower motor neurons. In ALS, however, both upper and lower motor neurons are affected.
- The neurons die and stop sending messages to muscles. The muscles are unable to function without these messages and gradually become weaker. They waste away (atrophy) and twitch (fasciculate).
- Eventually, all voluntary movement is lost, and muscles become paralyzed.
The loss of strength and control follows different patterns in different people.
- Some people lose control of one or both legs first. They may have trouble walking or running or become clumsy, tripping, or falling.
- Others notice a problem with a hand or arm first, having problems with simple tasks such as writing or buttoning a shirt.
- In some, speech or swallowing is the first thing affected.
- In every case, the weakness and disability spread to almost every part of the body.
- The diaphragm is a muscle under the lungs that partly controls their expansion as they take in air. When the chest muscles and diaphragm become too weak, the person can no longer breathe on his own. This is called respiratory failure and is by far the leading cause of death for people with ALS.
- Most people with ALS die within five years of the onset of symptoms.
In most cases, ALS does not affect a person's mental abilities, senses, reasoning, memory, or personality. Reasons such as vision and touch are not lost. Most people retain their ability to move their eyes. Bowel and bladder control are not impaired.
ALS affects all races and ethnic groups. The disease can occur at any age but is most common in people aged 40-60 years. Men are affected more often than women.
No cure is available for ALS. The effects of the disease are not reversible. Research is focused on finding the cause of neuron degeneration and stopping it.
What Causes Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
We do not know exactly what causes ALS. Although some cases of ALS are hereditary (run in families), most are not. A mutation of a gene called SOD1 has been identified in some of the hereditary cases, but we do not know what role the mutation plays in the disease.
Using an evidence-based approach, smoking was found to be more likely than not a risk factor for ALS based on two excellent studies by Kamel et al. and Nelson et al. Smoking has a broad public health impact, no redeeming features, and is a modifiable risk factor. Evidence also supported the conclusion that the following were probably not risk factors for ALS:
- physical activity,
- residence in rural areas, and
- alcohol consumption.
What Are the Symptoms of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis?
ALS may begin as weakness, awkwardness, or atrophy in one or more limbs. It may start as difficulty swallowing or speaking. The symptoms may be very subtle at first and maybe overlooked. Common symptoms include the following:
- Difficulty standing, walking, or running
- Clumsiness - Frequent tripping or falls
- Difficulty with fine hand motions such as buttoning, writing, turning a key in a lock
- Atrophy of hand muscles
- Atrophy of tongue
- Difficulty chewing food
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Difficulty speaking
- Oversensitive gag reflex
- Difficulty forming words (dysarthria)
- Weakness and atrophy in specific muscles
- Tight, stiff muscles (spasticity)
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle twitching visible under the skin (fasciculations)
There may be evidence for frontal lobe dysfunction in patients with ALS. Usually, this dysfunction is subclinical (not readily apparent or causing symptoms) and it is detectable only when looked for specifically with focused tests. However, in a minority of patients, clinically significant cognitive impairment becomes evident, with a continuum of abnormalities extending all the way to frank frontotemporal dementia. In addition to difficulties in planning and sequencing (the most common manifestations of "executive dysfunction" due to frontal lobe disease) some patients may express an otherwise inexplicable nonchalance or lack of insight into their situation and its impact on themselves and their loved ones and others; fortunately rarely, they may become less friendly than their usual selves. These aspects of ALS, when present, may pose major challenges to caregivers and healthcare personnel alike, and they may be associated with shorter survival.
Depression and anxiety may occur in patients with ALS. Though difficult to prove, these are likely part of the disease process itself, rather than mere reactions of the patients to their condition. Depression and anxiety are treatable.
Finally, some patients with ALS frequently exhibit a so-called pseudobulbar affect, manifesting as involuntary, uncontrolled outbursts of crying or laughter, which is distinct from their underlying mood.
As the disease progresses, the person with ALS loses the ability to carry out everyday activities such as dressing, eating, and working. Eventually getting out of bed becomes impossible without assistance. The person becomes restricted to a wheelchair or bed (the development of bedsores can be a problem.) As the respiratory muscles weaken, breathing becomes more and more difficult. The risk of pneumonia increases.
Hereditary (familial SOD1) and nonhereditary (sporadic) cases of ALS may have similar symptoms and course, but in some forms of ALS, these manifestations may be quite distinct (for instance, there are cases of familial ALS with juvenile-onset).
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When Should I Seek Medical Care for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
At onset, the signs and symptoms of ALS are often very subtle. They can be vague and nonspecific. This means that they could be caused by many different conditions, not necessarily a motor neuron disease.
- Any progressive difficulty in carrying out a normal activity such as walking, writing, or swallowing, warrants an evaluation by your doctor.
- Occasional clumsiness or muscle cramping is not unusual and does not mean that you have ALS.
What Are the Exams and Tests That Diagnose Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
No one test gives a definitive diagnosis of ALS. If you are having symptoms that suggest ALS, your health care provider will conduct a complete workup. He or she will conduct a detailed medical interview and physical examination and review the results of various tests before arriving at a diagnosis. At any time during the workup or treatment planning, your healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist in diseases of the nervous system (neurologist).
Your healthcare provider will ask you many questions about:
- your symptoms;
- your medical problems now and in the past;
- the medical problems of your family members;
- the medications you take;
- your work, military, and travel experiences;
- your habits and lifestyle; and
- probably others.
A detailed physical examination will focus on your mental abilities, movements, sensations, and reflexes.
No lab test confirms the diagnosis of sporadic ALS. Your healthcare provider may order several blood tests. Many of these are used to rule out specific conditions that may cause the symptoms you are having. These conditions include infections, metabolic problems, and autoimmune diseases. It is important to distinguish ALS from other conditions because many of these conditions can be improved with appropriate treatment.
You may undergo a magnetic resonance imaging study (MRI) of the brain or spinal cord. MRI findings are normal in ALS, but these studies may be needed to rule out other conditions whose symptoms are similar to those of ALS.
Needle electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies are the tests of choice for confirming the diagnosis of ALS. They also can rule out certain other conditions that may be confused with ALS.
- EMG is a method of recording electrical activity in muscles. Specific EMG findings support the diagnosis of ALS.
- Nerve conduction velocity (NCV) measures the impulses traveling through nerves between the spinal cord and muscles. This test can distinguish between ALS and other conditions with similar symptoms.
- These tests are conducted by a physician who specializes in electrophysiologic measurements.
A muscle biopsy is done to rule out muscle diseases that may have similar symptoms in certain circumstances. A biopsy is the removal of a tiny piece of tissue. The tissue is tested and examined under a microscope by a physician called a pathologist. The pathologist reports his or her findings back to the physician who ordered the biopsy.
What Is the Treatment for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
The goals of medical treatment are to relieve symptoms and complications, maintain muscle functions and movement, and delay paralysis and disability for as long as possible.
Self-Care at Home for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
ALS is a slowly progressive disease causing gradual disability. Once you begin to lose muscle function, you also begin to lose the ability to care for yourself.
- Gradually you become dependent on caregivers to take care of your bodily needs. At first, for example, you may have difficulty walking; later you will require help transferring from bed to chair or wheelchair. Eventually even the smallest movement requires assistance.
- The medical care team may include the primary care provider, specialist physicians, physical therapist, speech and communication therapist, respiratory therapist, social worker, nutritionist, and nurses. This team will provide much help in preparing you and your family to cope with this disability.
- Spouses and other relatives bear the major responsibility for day-to-day care.
- Home health aides can help relieve the stress of providing this round-the-clock care. They help by bathing, dressing, transferring, and feeding you as well as providing other services that prevent complications and provide comfort.
What Medical Treatment Is Available for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
No cure is available for ALS. However, a medication called riluzole (Rilutek) has become available.
- This medication slows damage to motor neurons by decreasing levels of a substance called glutamate that is thought to have a role in motor neuron degeneration.
- This drug has been shown to prolong life or delay ventilatory failure by two to three months in patients with ALS.
- It does not reverse the damage already done to motor neurons.
The remainder of medical treatment is focused on relieving symptoms, maintaining function for as long as possible, and coping with the loss of function.
- Regular exercise and a physical therapy program can strengthen muscles and reduce spasticity. This helps maintain movements for as long as possible.
- Speech therapy can help maintain speech for as long as possible and introduce other methods of communication. Computerized devices may allow you to communicate when you can no longer speak.
- Medications such as baclofen (Lioresal) and tizanidine (Zanaflex) may be used to relieve severe spasticity.
- Medications also may be prescribed to relieve pain (if any), depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and constipation.
- Diet needs to be adjusted to maintain adequate nutrition. Percutaneous tube feedings to the stomach are recommended when eating becomes an arduous task (takes more than an hour to complete the meal, or patient gives up before finishing), or when patients find they are choking on their food, or if they begin to lose weight rapidly.
Breathing support becomes necessary when you encounter symptoms of ventilatory failure. Often these result first in disrupted sleep. A patient may become aware of this first by noticing excessive sleepiness, tiredness, or waking up with headaches during the day. Later, patients may become short of breath if they lie down or with the smallest of activities. Non-invasive ventilatory support (Bi-PAP) can be used to support breathing during the night, and also, in more advanced diseases, to give the breathing muscles rest during the day.
Nutritional support and judicious use of non-invasive ventilatory support may extend life by up to 12 months on average and result in improved quality of life.
Invasive ventilatory support is required when patients can no longer breathe without assistance or if excessive secretions preclude the use of non-invasive ventilatory support.
- Usually, a mechanical ventilator is connected to the trachea (airway) through a small, permanent hole in the neck called a tracheostomy. The tracheostomy is performed by a surgeon.
- The biggest problem for a person on a ventilator is keeping the airway clear of natural secretions such as saliva and mucus.
- If not cleared, these secretions can be "aspirated," or breathed into the lungs. There they cause problems such as infections and pneumonia.
- A respiratory therapist can help prevent aspiration by regular suctioning and chest percussion.
- Caregivers and home health aides can learn these secretion management techniques.
Only a small minority of patients choose to receive invasive ventilatory support because of its requirements for 24-hour care in the context of a lifestyle that most, but not all, patients do not choose for themselves. However, some patients on long-term permanent ventilatory support have reported meaningful quality to their lives.
What Are the Medications for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
Riluzole (Rilutek) helps slow motor neuron damage and delay muscle paralysis and loss of function. A patient taking this drug will require regular blood tests during the first several months of treatment to detect possible liver damage, a possible decreased neutrophil (a type of white blood cells) count, and other harmful effects. To allow riluzole to be properly absorbed from the stomach, the patient should take the drug on an empty stomach (1 hour before or 2 hours after meals). Common side effects when starting the drug include nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and drowsiness.
Is Surgery Available for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
There is no surgical treatment for ALS. The surgeon is called in to perform the tracheostomy when you require help to breathe.
What Is the Follow-up for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
Once ALS is diagnosed, you will require regular visits with the medical team that is providing your care. These visits will monitor the course of the disease and the effects of treatment. They will also alert the medical team to needs for changes or additions to the treatment regimen.
How Do I Prevent Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
There is no known way to prevent ALS. This is one of the goals of ongoing research on ALS.
What Is the Outlook for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
Right now, no cure is available for ALS. It results in the death of affected patients. Most people with ALS die within five years of the first symptoms, although a few people have lived as long as 10 years. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or infections related to respiratory disability.
If you have ALS, you should take the opportunity to express your wishes about medical care, estate planning, and personal issues while you are still able.
- Preferences concerning medical care at the end of life should be clarified early and documented in your medical chart. Your spouse and other close family members should understand your wishes. Early clarification of these wishes prevents conflicts later when you are not able to speak for yourself.
- You should consult a lawyer as early as possible. Personal affairs should be settled. Later in the disease, you may not be able to sign papers or even communicate your wishes.
Support Groups and Counseling for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Living with ALS presents many new challenges, both for the affected person and for family and friends.
- You will naturally have many worries about the disabilities that come with the disease. How long you will be able to care for your family and home, hold your job, and continue the friendships and activities you enjoy. You worry about how your family will cope with the demands of your care. You wonder how they will manage when you are no longer able to contribute. You may feel anxious about death.
- Your loved ones also feel anxious about your death and how much they will miss you. They wonder how they will care for you through your illness. Money is almost always a concern.
- Many people in this situation feel anxious and depressed, at least sometimes. Some people feel angry and resentful; others feel helpless and defeated.
For both you and your caregivers, talking about feelings and concerns may help.
- Your friends and family members can be very supportive. They may be hesitant to offer support until they see how you are coping. Don't wait for them to bring it up. If you want to talk about your concerns, let them know.
- Some people don't want to "burden" their loved ones, or prefer talking about their concerns with a more neutral professional. A social worker, counselor, or member of the clergy can be helpful if you want to discuss your feelings and concerns about having ALS. Your primary care provider or neurologist should be able to recommend someone.
- You or your family members may be helped profoundly by talking to other people who have the disease or to their family members. Sharing your concerns with others who have been through the same experience can be remarkably reassuring. This is why support groups exist. Support groups offer the opportunity for people whose lives are affected by ALS to get together, whether in person, on the telephone, or on the Internet.
- Because ALS is relatively rare, finding a support group in your area may be difficult unless you live near a large medical center with many medical specialists. There are groups on the Internet that can help you find the support you need.
For more information about support groups, contact these agencies:
- ALS Association (ALSA) (800) 782-4747 or (818) 880-9007
- Les Turner ALS Foundation - (888) ALS-1107 or (847) 679-3311
- Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving - (800) 445-8106
- Doctor's Group
Reviewed on 11/15/2021
Medically reviewed by Joseph Carcione, DO; American board of Psychiatry and Neurology
"Diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other forms of motor neuron disease"