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Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

(ALS; Lou Gehrig's Disease; Motor Neuron Disease)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention

Definition

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive nervous system disorder. It gradually destroys the nerves responsible for muscle movement. Over time, ALS leads to almost total paralysis of muscle movement, including breathing. Eventually, the disorder leads to respiratory failure.

The Nervous System

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Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

The cause of ALS is unknown. Genes may play a role.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your risk of getting ALS include:

  • Having a family member with ALS
  • Being in the military or having other occupations with risk of exposure
  • Having certain genetic mutations

Symptoms

Symptoms of ALS include:

  • Progressive weakness in arms and legs
  • Wrist or foot drop
  • Difficulty holding things
  • Frequent tripping while walking
  • Muscle twitching
  • Unpredictable and changing emotions
  • Slurred speech
  • Hoarseness and coughing
  • Trouble chewing and swallowing, resulting in frequent choking and gagging
  • Weight loss due to trouble eating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Excess salivation, drooling

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. There are no tests that can diagnose ALS. Tests may be used to rule out other medical conditions.

Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:

Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture
  • Biopsy

Your muscles and nerves may be evaluated. This can be done with electromyogram (EMG)/nerve conduction velocities (NCV).

Your cognitive skills may be assessed. This can be done with neuropsychological testing.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for ALS.

Treatment may help to reduce or manage symptoms for a time. A combination of treatments may work best. This may include:

  • Taking medicines
  • Working with therapists and joining a support group
  • Participating in social activities

Treatment options include:

The drug riluzole has been approved for ALS. The drug may slightly improve functioning, but it does not stop the disease from progressing.

Your doctor may prescribe these medicines for symptoms:

  • Muscle relaxants reduce spasticity
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medicines
  • Atropine, scopolamine, botulinum toxin, antihistamine—To reduce heavy drooling
  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines
  • A combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine—To treat inappropriate laughter or crying

Supportive care may be needed as ALS progresses, including:

  • Physical therapy—To reduce pain associated with muscle cramping and spasticity
  • Respiratory care—In some cases, you may need to receive a mixture of air and oxygen from a machine. If you cannot move enough air in and out of your lungs, you may need surgery to have a tube inserted into your airway.
  • Nutritional care—Your doctor may make changes to your diet. In some cases, getting nutrition through tube feeding is needed.
  • Speech therapy—Speech therapy may be used to optimize communication. Therapy may include exploring alternate methods of communication.

Prevention

There are no guidelines for preventing ALS because the cause is unknown.

RESOURCES:

ALS Association

http://www.alsa.org

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

http://www.ninds.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

ALS Society of British Columbia

http://www.alsbc.ca

ALS Society of Canada

http://www.als.ca

References:

Aggarwal, SP, Zinman L, Simpson E, et al. Clinical trial testing lithium in ALS terminates early for futility. Lancet Neurol. 2010; 9(5): 481-488.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 8, 2013. Accessed May 21, 2013.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/amyotrophiclateralsclerosis/detail_amyotrophiclateralsclerosis.htm. Updated May 15, 2013. Accessed May 21, 2013.

Sathasivam S. Managing patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Eur J Intern Med. 2009;24:355-358.

Walling AD. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: Lou Gehrig's disease. Am Fam Physician. 1999;59:1489-1496.

4/17/2008 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Fornai F, Longone P, Cafaro L, et al. Lithium delays progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2008;105:2052-2057.

1/14/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Mateen FJ, Carone M, Sorenson EJ. Patients who survive 5 years or more with ALS in Olmsted County, 1925-2004. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2010;81(10):1144-1146.

Last reviewed May 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD; Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


 
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