Today we are providing information on ALS symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatment options.
What is ALS?
ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a progressive neuromuscular disease in which nerve cells die and leave voluntary muscles paralyzed. ALS Canadawarns that this paralysis spreads throughout the body and eventually affects the muscles required for all movement, speech, swallowing and breathing. The inability to expand and contract muscles for breathing is what makes ALS a terminal disease.
What are some common symptoms of ALS?
Early signs and symptoms of ALS include:
- Difficulty walking
- Weakness in legs, feet or ankles
- Slurring of speech or trouble swallowing
- Muscle cramps
- Twitching in arms, shoulders and tongue
- Difficulty holding head up or keeping good posture
Because ALS is a progressive disease, it worsens over time. The disease frequently begins in hands, feet, or limbs, and then spreads to other parts of the body. Some people with ALS experience problems with memory and are eventually diagnosed with a form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia.
What causes ALS?
ALS is inherited in 5 to 10 percent of cases. The other cases appear to occur randomly. According to ALS Canada, researchers are studying several possible causes of ALS, including:
- Gene mutation—various genetic mutations can lead to inherited ALS, which appears nearly identical to the non-inherited form.
- Chemical imbalance—people with ALS generally have higher than normal levels of glutamate, a chemical messenger in the brain, around the nerve cells in their spinal fluid. Too much glutamate is known to be toxic to some nerve cells.
- Disorganized immune response—sometimes a person’s immune system begins attacking some of their body’s own normal cells, which may lead to the death of nerve cells.
- Protein mishandling—mishandled proteins within the nerve cells may lead to a gradual accumulation of abnormal forms of these proteins in the cells, eventually causing the nerve cells to die.
What are the common risk factors associated with ALS?
Established risk factors for ALS include:
- Heredity—in most people with familial ALS, their children have a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.
- Age—ALS most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 40 and 60.
- Sex—before the age of 65, slightly more men than women develop ALS. After 65, the ratio of females to males with ALS is relatively equal.
- Smoking—smoking cigarettes appears to increase a person’s risk of ALS to almost twice that of a non-smoker. The more years spent smoking, the greater the risk.
Are there treatments for ALS?
There is no cure for ALS, but there are treatments that focus on slowing the progression of symptoms and preventing unnecessary complications. Treatment options include:
- Medication—the drug riluzole (Rilutek) is the only medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration for ALS. The drug appears to slow the disease’s progression in some people, perhaps by reducing levels of glutamate in the brain.
- Breathing Care—doctors may test your breathing regularly and provide you with devices to assist your breathing at night. In severe cases, breathing through mechanical ventilation might be necessary.
- Physical Therapy—a physical therapist can address pain, walking, mobility, and equipment needs that help an individual maintain their independence.
- Speech Therapy—a speech therapist can teach adaptive techniques to make speech more clearly understood. They can also help an individual explore other methods of communication such as an alphabet board.
- Psychological and Social Support—a social worker may be needed to help with financial issues and insurance, and psychologists may provide emotional support for an individual and their family.
If you or your loved one have been diagnosed with ALS, you/they may wish to consider joining a support group. This can provide comfort by creating an environment for sharing concerns with others who have ALS or experience coping with the disease. It is also a good idea to plan for the future in order to be in control of decisions regarding your life and care.
For more information on ALS, visit www.als.ca