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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal neurological disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. It is often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, (after a famous baseball player who died from the disease. ALS it is one of the most devastating of the disorders that affects the function of nerves and muscles.
ALS does not affect mental functioning or the senses (such as seeing or hearing), and it is not contagious. Currently, there is no cure for this disease.
ALS most commonly affects people of any racial or ethnic group between the ages of 40 and 70, although it can occur at a younger age.
There are 2 main classifications of ALS:
Experts do not know the cause of ALS. In a very small percentage of cases, genetics is involved. ALS. Research is looking into possible environmental causes of ALS.
With ALS, you may first have weakness in one limb that develops over a matter of days or, more commonly, a few weeks. Then, several weeks to months later, weakness develops in another limb. Sometimes the initial problem can be one of slurred speech or difficulty swallowing.
As ALS progresses, though, more and more symptoms are noticed. The following are the most common symptoms of ALS. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
The symptoms of ALS may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
There is no specific test to diagnose ALS. Your health care provider will consider your medical history and symptoms and will do certain tests to rule out other conditions including:
There is no cure for ALS. Over a period of 3 to 5 years, the disease will progress, making voluntary movements of arms and legs impossible, requiring assistance with personal care, eating, and mobility. Movement of the diaphragm for breathing is also impaired and a ventilator may be required for breathing. Most individuals with ALS die from respiratory failure.
Your specific treatment plan will be determined by your health care provider based on:
For most people with ALS, primary treatment may involve the management of symptoms, and may include physical, occupational, speech, respiratory, and nutritional therapies. Some medications and/or heat or whirlpool therapy may help to relieve muscle cramping. Exercise, in moderation, may help to maintain muscle strength and function.
There is no cure and no proven treatment for ALS. However, the FDA approved riluzole (Rilutek), the first drug that has prolonged the survival of persons with ALS.
Managing the symptoms of ALS is a process that is challenging for you, your caregivers, and your medical team. However, it’s important to know that there are many community resources available for support and assistance.
Researchers are conducting studies to increase their understanding of genes that may cause the disease, mechanisms that can trigger motor neurons to degenerate in ALS, and approaches to stop the progress leading to cell death.
ALS will eventually lead to disability and death. Although your ability to move and breathe independently will be affected, your intelligence and ability to think is not. You and your family will work closely with your health care provider to manage symptoms as they develop. Use of the medication Rilutek may prolong your life by a few months, particularly for if you have swallowing difficulty. Discuss ways to make living spaces more accessible, use of mobility devices and wheelchairs. It’s very important to discuss end-of-life decisions with your loved ones.
It is important that you keep your health care provider informed about new symptoms so she or he can recommend therapies and community resources appropriately. Most importantly, call your health care provider if you begin to have difficulty breathing.
Treatment of ALS focuses on managing or minimizing symptoms as much as possible.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.