May is ALS awareness month. Each May, our community comes together to raise awareness of the disease, share stories from people living with ALS, show our support for caregivers, families, and care workers, and shine a spotlight on those who dedicate their lives to finding a cure. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary movement. ALS occurs in people between the ages of 40 and 70, but younger and older individuals also can develop the disease.
What are the Symptoms?
The primary symptoms of ALS include weakness and loss of muscle mass (atrophy), which occur as a result of the degeneration of motor neurons. People may not be able to stand or walk, use their hands and arms, chew and swallow food, or speak in the later stages. They ultimately may be unable to breathe without the support of a ventilator. The disease is almost always fatal, usually because the muscles necessary for breathing become too weak. On average, people survive for about three to five years, but up to 10 percent will live for 10 years or more.
What Causes ALS?
ALS is caused by degeneration of the motor neurons, but scientists have not yet discovered why the disease occurs in some people but not others. Ninety to 95 percent of ALS cases occur randomly, with no clear risk factors or causes. Individuals with sporadic ALS have no family history of the disease, nor are their family members at increased risk of developing it. In the hereditary form of ALS (only 5 to 10 percent of cases), researchers have identified mutations in more than a dozen genes.
How is ALS Diagnosed?
There is no specific test to diagnose ALS. Instead, neurologists rely on a thorough medical history and neurologic examination, supplemented by electromyography (an electrical test of nerve and muscle function). Before making the diagnosis and ruling out other possible causes, doctors may perform a series of other tests, including blood and urine tests, a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or, in rare cases, a muscle biopsy.
Can ALS be Treated?
There is no cure, but the US Food and Drug Administration has approved edaravone (Radicava) and riluzole (Rilutek), medications that have been found to slow the disease’s progression and prolong survival. Medications are also available to relieve symptoms such as fatigue, muscle cramps, spasticity, constipation, pain, and excess saliva. Depression and sleep disturbances, which are common in ALS, can be treated effectively with medication and therapy. As the disease progresses, patients may require feeding tubes and ventilator assistance.
Contact an ALS Doctor
If you are looking for a neurologist who treats ALS patients, contact First Choice Neurology today! We have several neurologists located throughout Florida.