What is ALS?

ALS is a rapidly progressive, fatal neuromuscular disease. It attacks the motor neurons responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the brain to the voluntary muscles throughout the body. When these muscles fail to receive messages, they eventually lose strength, atrophy and die. There is no known treatment.

Anyone can get ALS. More than 3,000 Canadians currently endure the disease with two to three dying every day as a result.

Why is it Known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Lou Gehrig, a famous baseball player in the U.S. during the 1930’s, became afflicted with ALS. He was known as baseball’s “Ironman”. Strength, agility, excellent health – Lou Gehrig had everything it took to become a baseball legend. But Lou Gehrig had something else. At the peak of his career, he was diagnosed as having Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). He died at the age of 38.

What Causes ALS?

The cause is not yet known, although several theories are now being researched. At present, neither a cure for ALS nor a means of prevention is known. In 1993, scientists announced in a paper published in the British journal “Nature” that they had isolated the gene associated with about 20% of the cases of the inherited form of the disease. While only 10% of ALS patients have this genetic predisposition, there is no evidence of a clinical difference between the familial and the sporadic forms of the illness.

Does ALS Cause Pain?

The onset is insidious and without pain. As the disease progresses, muscle cramping can occur. In its final stages, the wasting of the body may cause severe pain. Extreme mental anguish is often caused by a lively, unimpaired mind trapped in a totally immobilized body.

What Parts of the Body Does ALS Affect?

ALS does not affect the mind because it attacks only motor neurons. The person with ALS remains mentally sharp and in full possession of the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

Are There Different Types of ALS?

  •     Sporadic (which is the most common form of ALS)
  •     Familial (a small number of cases suggest genetic inheritance of ALS)
  •     Guamanian (a high number of cases of ALS occur in Guam and the Trust Territories of the Pacific.)

What are the Early Symptoms of ALS?

ALS usually becomes apparent either in the throat or upper chest area or in the arms and legs. Some people begin to trip and fall; some lose the use of their hands and arms; some find it hard to swallow and some slur their speech.

Can You “Catch” ALS?

ALS cannot be “caught”. It is not contagious. In 90% of ALS cases, it strikes people with no family history of the disease. Ten percent of the cases are classified as familial or inherited ALS. It may occur at any age, the likelihood increasing as people grow older. However, many are struck down in the prime of life. ALS occurs equally in men and women.

How Do People with ALS Cope with the Disease?

People with ALS generally are remarkably cheerful and resilient. Nevertheless, ALS has a devastating effect on patients and their families. It consumes their financial and emotional resources while they attempt to deal with the advancing disability and the prospect of death.

Clinical Progression of ALS

Many patients are debilitated before they have contracted ALS, because the disease frequently takes its toll before being positively diagnosed. Patients are initially prompted to seek medical attention because of a persistent muscle twitch, muscle fatigue or even muscle wasting. This usually starts in the hands or lower legs, and is usually accompanied by cramps. In some cases, patients experience difficulty in swallowing and/or a change in their voice.

As the disease progresses, patients lose the ability to dress and feed themselves, sit up, walk or even speak. The bodily functions that remain intact until or near death are the control of excretory functions (i.e. urination, defecation), sexual function, eye movement, and intellect.

Generally, patients survive three to five years after diagnosis. Death usually occurs due to respiratory failure.

Is There Any Treatment for ALS?

There is no treatment for ALS. However, as the body deteriorates, there is treatment for the symptoms, such as spasms and saliva control. Also, supportive strategies are available to prolong and improve the quality of life.

SOURCE: This information was obtained through the ALS Society of Canada.