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Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), goes by different names in different countries. In the United States, it is named after New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with this illness in the 1930s. Australians and the English call the condition the motor neuron disease (MND). In France, ALS is known as the maladie de Charcot, derived from Jean-Martin Charcot, the first doctor to write about the problem in 1869. While the disease carries many names, its meaning remains the same around the world.
ALS is a neurological disorder characterized by the slow wasting away, or atrophy, of the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurons are nerve cells that transmit signals between the brain and the spinal cord, controlling muscle movements in the limbs, neck, face, and torso. The gradual atrophy and weakening of the nerve cells eventually causes the loss of muscular control in various parts of the body. Therefore, a person afflicted with ALS will eventually be unable to perform normal actions such as chewing, speaking, walking, and even breathing. Nerve cells that enable hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste, thinking, learning, and memory are spared the destructive effects of this disease.
ALS can afflict anyone, but its incidence is most common among males between the ages of 40 and 70. Cases in the United States fall into two types – familial ALS (FALS) and sporadic ALS. Familial ALS is a hereditary condition that occurs as a result of gene mutation. It makes up between 5% to 10% of all ALS cases. A family history of this condition means an increased risk of future generations being afflicted at a much younger age than usual. The majority of ALS patients suffer from sporadic ALS. This form attacks at random and has no known cause or risk factors.
Signs and symptoms of ALS are very subtle at the beginning. The condition starts in one part of the body, gradually spreading to other parts until the entire body becomes paralyzed. Initial signs include the weakening of extremities such as the legs and hands, causing clumsiness and instability. People with these symptoms usually trip or fall a lot and often drop things as well. As the disease progresses, symptoms include muscle twitching and cramping, resulting in terrible fatigue. Finally, paralysis sets in, impairing walking, eating, and breathing.
As there is no cure for this disorder, ALS patients face a life of continuous treatment in an effort to delay progression of the disease and to ensure that they are comfortable and independent. Rilutek® is the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assist in slowing the effects of ALS. Specialists may recommend other drugs as well to reduce muscle cramps and twitching. Other treatments include physical therapy to exercise and strengthen wasted muscles. Aside from this, speech therapy teaches various techniques to help patients to be better understood when they speak.
Statistics from the ALS Association show that 50% of patients live at least three years after they are diagnosed with the disorder. Close to 20% survive for five years or more, while another 10% live for more than 10 years. Keeping these numbers in mind, scientists and medical specialists worldwide continue research and development to better understand ALS in order to discover more effective treatments.