AMYOTROPHIC LATERAL SCLEROSIS (ALS)
First identified in 1869 by French neurologist Jean Martin Chacrot, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) didn’t gain much attention until 1939 when popular baseball star, Lou Gehrig, was stricken. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord and throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of these motor neurons eventually leads to their death and the inability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement. As voluntary muscle action progressively deteriorates, patients lose motor function and in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
According to the ALS Association (alsa.org), there are roughly 5,000 new cases of ALS each year or 15 newly afflicted patients every day. It is estimated that at least 16,000 people have this disease and nearly 90% of these cases have no family history of its incidence. More men than women may be diagnosed although with aging the percentages are essentially equal.
Signs and symptoms of ALS vary from one individual to another but may initially include:
-gradual onset and progressive muscle weakness
-changes in vocal pitch or slurring of words
-abnormal fatigue of the limbs
-tripping, dropping things
-twitches, involuntary movements
Since the disease only affects motor neurons, things like eyesight and bladder function are typically not affected.
As the disease progresses, breathing becomes more difficult, often requiring assistive ventilator devices to help patients. Walking or other motor skills worsen and patients are confined to wheelchairs or bed. While life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years, every patient is different and more than half live with this disease more than five years.
While little is known about the cause or causes, we do know that military veterans are approximately twice as likely to develop ALS.