Understanding amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a degenerative condition that causes the nerve cells in the brain and spine to fail to send signals to the muscles in the body. Without this communication, the muscles “atrophy,” gradually weakening and wasting away. This affects the person’s ability to control movement, ultimately leading to paralysis and the inability to use the muscles required to eat and breathe. Although the average survival time with ALS is three to five years, there are treatments and medications that can help minimize a person’s symptoms and some people live well beyond five years.

ALS symptoms vary from person to person

ALS symptoms may look like clumsiness at first. If you have ALS you may have difficulty grasping hold of things or may drop things easily. You may trip more easily or have difficulty walking and maintaining balance.

Other symptoms of ALS may include:

  • Changes in the way the voice sounds
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Inability to hold head up and maintain good posture
  • Muscle cramps and twitching in arms, shoulders, tongue
  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Weakness in the extremities (hands, feet, legs, ankles)

In spite of the changes that happen as the disease progresses, people with ALS retain their mental abilities and are able to control their eyes and bladder.

Drugs and therapies to treat ALS symptoms

Treatment for ALS patients generally involves participation of a multidisciplinary team of physicians, pharmacists, occupational and home health therapists, nutritionists and social workers. While there is no cure for the disease, therapies such as these may relieve your symptoms and discomfort:

  • Medication to reduce fatigue, muscle cramping, spasticity, and excessive saliva
  • Physical therapy to help maintain mobility and independence
  • Speech therapy for communication challenges at any stage of the disease
  • Nutritional support to ensure foods are easy to swallow and body is nourished
  • Home care and hospice workers to support the family during final stages of the disease

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.