What is ALS?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

A neurological disorder that causes degeneration of motor neurons. As neurons degenerate and die, they stop sending messages to the muscles, which causes the muscles to weaken, start to twitch (fasciculations), and waste away (atrophy). Eventually, in ALS, the brain loses its ability to initiate and control voluntary movements such as walking, talking, eating, and eventually breathing. ALS is progressive, meaning the symptoms get worse over time.   

Early symptoms include:  

  • Muscle twitches in the arm, leg, shoulder, or tongue  

  • Muscle cramps  

  • Tight and stiff muscles (spasticity)  

  • Muscle weakness  

  • Slurred and nasal speech  

  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing  

As the disease progresses, muscle weakness and atrophy spread to other parts of the body. People with ALS may develop problems with:  

  • Chewing food and swallowing (dysphagia)  

  • Drooling (sialorrhea)  

  • Speaking or forming words (dysarthria)  

  • Breathing (dyspnea)  

  • Unintended crying, laughing, or other emotional displays (pseudobulbar symptoms)  

  • Constipation  

  • Maintaining weight and getting enough nutrients  

Eventually, people with ALS will not be able to stand or walk, get in or out of bed on their own, use their hands and arms, or breathe on their own. Because they usually remain able to reason, remember, and understand, they are aware of their progressive loss of function. This can cause anxiety and depression in the person with ALS and their loved ones. Although not as common, people with ALS also may experience problems with language or decision-making. Some also develop a form of dementia known as FTD-ALS.  

Most people with ALS die from being unable to breathe on their own (known as respiratory failure,) usually within three to five years from when the symptoms first appear. However, about 10% survive for a decade or more.  

10 Facts About ALS:   

  1. There are multiple types of ALS based on what part of the body the disease initially shows up.  Bulbar and Spinal are the two most common forms.  Bulbar onset initially affects the muscles controlling speech and swallowing.  Spinal onset initially affects muscles controlling the arms and legs.  There are several additional less common subtypes of ALS.  

  2. Every 90 minutes, someone is diagnosed and passes from ALS.  

  3. 90% of cases occur without a family history.  

  4. Onset is usually between ages 55 and 75 years. Men initially are more likely to get ALS until after menopause when the ratio evens.  

  5. Life expectancy is two to four years from diagnosis.  

  6. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like pesticides) are associated with higher ALS risk and quicker progression.  

  7. The Midwest has the highest prevalence of ALS in the United States.  

  8. Veterans have two times the incidence of ALS compared to others.  Similarly, manufacturing jobs are associated with higher ALS risk.  

  9. By 2040, ALS incidence is predicted to increase by 70% globally and 30% in our region. 

  10. There is no cure.  ALS is always fatal.