Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS primarily involves the degeneration and death of motor neurons, which are responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to the muscles, leading to a loss of voluntary muscle control.
The exact cause of ALS is still unknown in the majority of cases, although a small percentage are linked to genetic mutations. The disease typically occurs sporadically without any known family history. ALS affects individuals of all races and ages, with the average age of onset being between 40 and 70 years.
The initial symptoms of ALS can vary but often include muscle weakness, cramping, or twitching. This may be noticed in the hands, arms, legs, or speech and swallowing muscles. As the disease progresses, the weakness spreads to other parts of the body, leading to difficulties in walking, speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing. Despite the progressive loss of motor function, cognitive abilities and sensory functions usually remain intact.
Diagnosing ALS is challenging as there is no specific test for it. Physicians typically rely on a combination of clinical symptoms, neurological examinations, and exclusion of other conditions that may mimic ALS. Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies can help identify the characteristic signs of motor neuron degeneration.
Currently, there is no cure for ALS, and treatment focuses on managing symptoms and providing supportive care. Medications, such as riluzole and edaravone, may help slow the progression of the disease and prolong survival by a few months. Additionally, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy can help maintain muscle strength, mobility, and communication abilities.
Due to the complex nature of the disease, research efforts continue to explore the underlying mechanisms of ALS and develop potential treatments. Promising areas of investigation include stem cell therapy, gene therapy, and the identification of disease-modifying agents.
Support from healthcare professionals, caregivers, and ALS associations plays a crucial role in improving the quality of life for individuals living with ALS. Ongoing research and advancements in care aim to provide better support, therapies, and hope for individuals and families affected by this debilitating condition.
Learn more about how to support Canadians with ALS by visiting the ALS Society of Canada’s website.