ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive and degenerative disease of the nervous system that weakens the muscles and impairs physical functioning. When the nerve cells in the spinal cord do not send proper signals to the muscles, the muscles waste away and the spinal cord scars and hardens. Over time, this may lead to an inability to speak, eat, move or breathe. ALS usually has a gradual onset involving progressive muscle weakness, abnormal fatigue or slurred speech. However, the symptoms and progression of the disease vary for each individual. It is estimated that over 12,000 people in the United States have ALS.
The average survival time after the onset of symptoms is three to five years, though some people with ALS may live for up to ten years or longer if the progression is slower. There is currently no cure, so the goal of treatment is usually to minimize symptoms, provide relief and improve quality of life. Medication can be helpful in reducing both physical and mental symptoms (such as pain, muscle cramps or depression), and physical or occupational therapy may help with range of motion and mobility. Communication aids (such as speech synthesizers), mobility aids (such as wheelchairs) and breathing machines are available as well.
The degenerative and progressive nature of ALS can make it a devastating disease. Over time, a person gradually loses the ability to function and control motor movements. The disease is generally not painful at first, but the weakness and loss of control can be challenging and frustrating. As the disease progresses, a person may experience more pain or stiffness. The disease is ultimately fatal, but treatment options can help a person to make the most of their life with ALS.
There is a great deal of research being done to learn more about the causes of ALS and how it can be better treated. Many organizations exist to provide information, resources and support to those living with ALS. ALS awareness continues to increase through projects such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, started in 2014, which also helped to raise money for research.