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What is Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS?

By Aniza Pourtauborde
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon185924 — On Jun 13, 2011

To Anon23226: Fibromyalgia is notorious for causing spasms and twitching all over the body. With ALS, it usually starts in one body part, and spreads. Sounds like your fibro symptoms are flaring (I know, because i have fibro also). I spent a year freaking out, thinking I had ALS. Don't do this to yourself.

By anon104638 — On Aug 17, 2010

To mssnowwhite31: My dad was diagnosed last week with this disease. He has been getting weak in his right arm for about the past year and now his left arm is doing the same.

When this first began, his doctor told him that he may have a nerve being pinched in his neck and had surgery to correct it, but to no avail. The next visit, his doctor let him know that he thought it was Lou Gehrig's and to go to Cedars Sinai hospital for a second opinion. The tests came back positive.

His speech also has been deteriorating in the past four months now. The doctors at Cedars are giving him some kind of pills to help and they are going to do studies on several patients with the same disease. Hopefully they will come up with something to at least ease the frustrations of not being able to do anything.

My dad has always been active and pretty much a picture of health. Best wishes for your uncle. As far as info, I'm doing the same as you, searching the net for answers. Take care.

By anon92506 — On Jun 28, 2010

If your maternal grandmother and mother had ALS, what are the chances that the next generation will get it (mine)? We were told that they did not have familial ALS, but that would mean it was environmental.

By anon44781 — On Sep 10, 2009

Anon506: Stephen Hawking does *not* have ALS. He has a related form of motor neuron disease, called multifocal muscular dystrophy. Besides having a less virulent form of motor neuron disease, (relatively speaking), he has access to top of the line 24/7 nursing care, physical therapy, and home care.

By marktheisen — On Jan 17, 2009

To Whom it may concern. today is Jan. 17,2009, I have reason to believe that a PH of 6.5 or higher may slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. No guarantees of course. At an ALS gathering in Minn. recently some were saying there have been studies of Lou Gherig's and PH. With Litmus paper you can test your own PH, and can raise it with vegetables, especially broccoli, and a high ph liquid. I use Miracle 2 Neutralizer, available on the internet. I would saturate and test etc. No guarantees of course, but something to try.

By anon23226 — On Dec 18, 2008

Has anyone been in contact with a person who has experienced (sporadic ALS) I have something going on in my body that's scaring me. I've been taken off prescribed meds that were suspected of causing the spasming in my neck, abdomen,legs, arms, shoulders, and lower back. The spasming almost completely stopped,but now am experiencing it again, months after stopping the suspected med which was for cholesterol. I have fibro and have pain a lot of the time. Is there anyone else out there experiencing these symptoms. I have been to doctors for this. Any insight?

By msnowwhite31 — On Apr 10, 2008

Hello this here on wise geek is the first piece of info I have EVER read about Lou Gehrig's Disease! Now it has hit my family and if anyone has any good places to get info anything, please let me know!! My uncle, he is such a wonderful person has done good things his whole life, foster care, minister, and there are soo many things, it is soo sad, this disease does NOT discriminate who it hits!! We only found out about 3 months ago and He is going downhill fast! The Drs. Figure he has had this for 1 year already. Anyway if anyone has any good info for myself and my family please let me know It will be greatly appreciated!! Thanks in Advance :)

By ecd — On Mar 05, 2008

My mother developed signs of ALS at 77 years old. We thought maybe she had a minor stroke - her voice would be fine most of the time but then suddenly she would be unintelligible. She progressed from trouble speaking to trouble swallowing. She had to have a feeding tube and oxygen but we decided to not go to all lengths to extend her life. By the time she couldn't walk, talk, eat the joy of life was passed. It was a family decision but it didn't make her passing any easier to take. She was mentally competent to the end and we described her condition as being trapped in a coffin. She couldn't communicate any longer and it was torture for her - but her passing was torture for the family.

By anon9023 — On Feb 26, 2008

There is no known specific cause to the onset of ALS and no specific test to provide a diagnosis. In most cases ALS is diagnosed by eliminating other diseases. There are cases of familial ALS where it is passed to different generations of the same family. Bulbar onset of ALS strikes the throat area. The ALS Association and other organizations can provide even more detailed information.

By Richnjfla — On Jul 17, 2007

How does an 88 year old woman who has had good health all her life get Lou Gherig's Disease? About 7 months ago she had a sore throat (froggy) and now it's hard to understand her. But that's the only sign.

By anon506 — On Apr 26, 2007

I understand that Stephen Hawkings has had this disease for many years. What is keeping him alive?

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