Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease is a rare motor neuron disease that affects the special nerve cells in the human brain and spine called motor neurons. It is these nerve cells that help an individual perform voluntary actions such as walking, talking, chewing, and moving their arms.
In a person affected with ALS, these nerve cells progressively die thus leading to a condition where the muscles dependent on these nerve cells are not able to function or move. The situation is quite alarming as the National Library of Medicine forecasts that there will be a sharp surge in ALS cases across the globe from 222,801 in 2015 to 376,674 by 2040.
Early Symptoms Of ALS
The symptoms of ALS may vary from patient to patient. The reason is that It all depends on the particular nerve cells that are affected.
In the initial stages of ALS, a patient may experience symptoms such as muscle twitching in the arm, shoulder, leg, or tongue. He/she may also go through muscle cramps, spasticity – a condition in which muscles stiffen or tighten and muscle weakness that affects body parts such as an arm, a leg, the neck, or the diaphragm. The other symptoms in the early stages include slurred and nasal speech and difficulty experienced while chewing or swallowing.
Symptoms In The Later Stages
As ALS progresses, muscle weakness and atrophy spread to other parts of the human body. Thus, eventually, a patient may develop problems such as
- Inability to stand or walk, use arms and hands, and perform an activity such as getting in or out of bed on their own.
- Dysphagia – A medical term used to denote swallowing difficulty.
- Dyspnea – A condition of feeling short of breath. Eventually, patients suffering from ALS will have to depend on a ventilator
- Dysarthria – Speaking becomes difficult as the muscles that aid in speaking become weak.
- Anxiety and depression as ALS patients are generally able to reason, understand, remember, and are conscious of their progressive loss of function.
- Neuropathy caused due to nerve damage or disease and muscle cramps.
- Maintaining weight and malnourishment
Though not commonly found, those suffering from ALS may also face problems with language or decision-making. They may also develop a type of dementia over a period of time. However, the disease does not affect one’s ability to taste, smell, touch, or hear.
Risk Factors Of ALS
- Age – ALS is most commonly found among people falling in the age group between 60s and mid-80s. As one ages, the risk also increases up to the age of 75.
- Genetics – Among people who were diagnosed with ALS, around 10% were cases where a risk gene was passed down from one of their family members. This type of ALS is termed hereditary ALS and in such people, the chances of their children inheriting the gene are 50%.
- Gender – The count of males affected by ALS is slightly higher than that of females in the age group below 65. However, in the case of those above 70, irrespective of gender, everyone stands the chance to get affected.
Apart from the risk factors mentioned above, environmental toxin exposure and smoking are considered to be risk factors for ALS. People who have served military also have higher chances of being affected by ALS.
How To Diagnose?
It is tough to diagnose ALS in the early stages as the symptoms may be similar to those of other diseases. However, tests such as an Electromyogram (EMG), MRI, Nerve conduction study, muscle biopsy, nerve biopsy, spinal tap (also known as lumbar puncture), and blood and urine tests help medical experts to diagnose ALS to a certain extent.
Treatment For ALS
There is no cure for ALS. Though there is no proven treatment, the FDA has approved the medicine Riluzole, the first drug known to prolong the survival of patients diagnosed with ALS.
Generally, the main treatment for ALS involves the management of its symptoms. It may involve physical, speech, respiratory, occupational, and nutritional therapies. Heat or whirlpool therapy may offer relief for patients from muscle cramping and exercise in moderation may aid in maintaining muscle strength and function.