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Published on March 14, 2018

What is ALS and How Does It Affect the Body?

What is ALS and How Does it Affect the Body

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a neurological disease. This disease is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the famous baseball player who went public with his diagnosis in 1939.

ALS causes nerve cells, called motor neurons, in the spinal cord and brain to die. These motor neurons control muscles. When they die, loss of muscle control occurs. At first, the muscle loss causes mobility problems, and then it begins to affect the ability to speak, eat, swallow and breathe. After receiving no signals from the brain for a time, these muscles begin to atrophy, or get weaker and smaller.

One of the first signs of ALS is weakness on one limb, the face or the tongue. Eventually the weakness spreads to all of the limbs and then the other muscles in the body that control functions important for survival.

Some of the first signs of ALS may be:

  • Muscle twitching.
  • Difficulty using fingers for simple tasks.
  • Difficulty speaking, eating, walking or breathing.

These symptoms may also be the result of neurological problems other than ALS, so it is best to talk to your doctor to help determine what the root cause may be. If your doctor suspects ALS, you will be referred to a neurologist for further tests.

Tests used to determine an ALS diagnosis are:

After a person is diagnosed with ALS, they typically have a life expectancy of three to five years; although, some, like recently deceased Stephen Hawking, lived much longer. There is no definitive known cause for ALS. This disease is rare. Only two out of 100,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year.

There is no known cure for ALS, but treatments are available to prolong life and help maintain independence. These include: