Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurological disease that results in the death of cells in the brain and spinal cord, controlling (voluntary) muscle activity. It is the most widely known of the motor neuron diseases.

“Lou Gehrig’s disease” is named after the famous American baseball player who developed ALS in 1939 at the age of 36. In the United States, ALS is considered a rare or “orphan disease” with 20,000 to 30,000 people living with the disease.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year.

ALS commonly strikes people between the ages of 40 to 60 years old. It appears to impact people of all races and may be more common in men.  Early symptoms may include muscle weakness and stiffness or spasticity. Other symptoms include difficulty speaking, chewing and swallowing food. As the disease progresses, muscle degeneration spreads throughout the body making simple movements difficult. Patients eventually have trouble moving, speaking and breathing without the assistance of a mechanical ventilator.

Clinical signs that lead to a diagnosis of ALS include:

  • Muscle tightness or stiffness
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle Cramps
  • Muscle Twitching
  • Muscle Atrophy

Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure within three to five years of diagnosis, but some patients (about 10%) live for 10 or more years.