Learn About ALS

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a terminally progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

ALS is a disease of "motor neurons", the cells that initiate and control the movement of muscles. Upper motor neurons originate in the brain and lower neurons originate in the spinal cord.

The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons with ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. ALS affects both upper and lower motor neurons. Upper motor neuron disease causes stiffness, which is called spasticity. Lower motor neuron disease causes weakness, atrophy and muscle twitching.

Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms of ALS. However, people may experience symptoms differently.

  • Twitching and cramping, especially in the hands and feet
  • Loss of motor control in the hands and arms
  • Difficulty lifting the front part of the foot
  • Muscle weakness in hands, arms, and legs
  • Tripping and falling
  • Uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying
  • In more advanced stages shortness of breath and increased difficulty in breathing and¬†swallowing

Diagnosis

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, there are several test procedures performed for ALS because there is no single diagnostic conformation.

  • Blood work to rule out other causes
  • Neurological exams
  • Cerebral spinal fluid analysis (spinal tap)
  • X-rays
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Electro-diagnostic tests (electromyography, EMG)
  • Muscle biopsy and lumbar punctures

Treatment

Currently ALS has no cure. The only FDA-approved drug, Rilutek, can extend survival for a couple of months. However patients suffering from the disease can maximize their abilities and be made more comfortable with many different techniques:

  • Medications to relieve painful muscle cramps
  • Exercise, physical therapy and stretching helps maintain mobility and decreases muscle stiffness
  • Nutritional counseling promotes an optimal diet
  • Devices such as corrective braces, grab bars, and reach-extenders provide some assistance
  • Wheelchairs, lifts, and electric beds maximize functional independence

To learn more about ALS, please visit the following pages:

ALS Center Neurology at Emory NINDS