Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s or Charcot’s disease, is a progressive disease of the nervous system occurring as a result of degeneration of cells of the brain and spinal cord, leading to weak muscles.
It often begins with muscle twitching and limb weakness before affecting the muscles of the throat. There is no cure for ALS. Perhaps this disease is most popular for affecting Stephen Hawking, a very brilliant scientist before his death.
Causes of ALS
When we want to move any part of our body, nerve cells bring signals from the brain down to the spinal cord and then to muscles in order to move the muscles. ALS works by destroying these nerve cells, causing them to degenerate, thereby resulting in loss of muscle control.
ALS could be inherited in about 10% of cases, while in other cases, the cause is largely unknown.
Symptoms of ALS depend on which nerve cells are affected. ALS, however, does not affect your bladder or your ability to feel. Some of the symptoms include:
- Difficulty walking
- Hand weakness
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty swallowing
- Twitching in your arms and tongue
- Laughing or yawning inappropriately
- Changes in behavior
Some factors increase your risk of developing ALS. These include:
- Increasing age
- Sex: More common in males
- Exposure to lead
- Military service
When ALS develops, it begins to increase in severity over time. Soon, it causes some complications which may be life-threatening or devastating. Complications may include:
- Difficulty breathing: Because it affects the muscles you use to breathe
- Speech difficulty: It affects the muscles of the throat, some of which are used to speak
- Problems with eating: The muscles for swallowing are weakened, causing difficulty swallowing, leading to malnutrition.
- Dementia: Memory and cognition may be affected later in the disease.
It is difficult to diagnose as it may appear similar to other nervous system disorders. However, some tests may be done to rule out the other conditions. Some of these tests include:
- Electromyogram (EMG) to check the function of your muscles
- Nerve conduction study to measure the functional ability of your nerves
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to produce an image of your brain and spinal cord to check if there are tumors there
- Lumbar puncture: This is to check the fluid in your spinal cord for infection or other signs of neurological diseases
ALS is untreatable but careful management can reduce the rate at which the nerve cells degenerate, thus reducing the risk of complications. Treatment options include:
- Medications e.g. Riluzole (Oral) and Edaravone (Intravenous). These drugs improve reduce poor functioning and may increase life expectancy.
- Breathing assistance
- Physical, occupational, and speech therapy
- Nutritional support to ensure you’re eating well
- Psychological and social support