ALS Disease Symptoms, Treatment, Causes: What is ALS? (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis)

What is Lou Gherig's Disease, or ALS?

Overview

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.

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease," is a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.

A-myo-trophic comes from the Greek language. "A" means no or negative. "Myo" refers to muscle, and "Trophic" means nourishment -- "No muscle nourishment." When a muscle has no nourishment, it "atrophies" or wastes away. "Lateral" identifies the areas in a person's spinal cord where portions of the nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located. As this area degenerates it leads to scarring or hardening ("sclerosis") in the region.

As motor neurons degenerate, they can no longer send impulses to the muscle fibers that normally result in muscle movement. Early symptoms of ALS often include increasing muscle weakness, especially involving the arms and legs, speech, swallowing or breathing. When muscles no longer receive the messages from the motor neurons that they require to function, the muscles begin to atrophy (become smaller). Limbs begin to look "thinner" as muscle tissue atrophies.

What Types of Nerves Make Your Body Work Properly?

(from Living with ALS, Manual 1: What's It All About?)


The body has many kinds of nerves. There are those involved in the process of thinking, memory, and of detecting sensations (such as hot/cold, sharp/dull), and others for vision, hearing, and other bodily functions. The nerves that are affected when you have ALS are the motor neurons that provide voluntary movements and muscle power. Examples of voluntary movements are your making the effort to reach for the phone or step off a curb; these actions are controlled by the muscles in the arms and legs.

The heart and the digestive system are also made of muscle but a different kind, and their movements are not under voluntary control. When your heart beats or a meal is digested, it all happens automatically. Therefore, the heart and digestive system are not involved in ALS. Breathing also may seem to be involuntary. Remember, though, while you cannot stop your heart, you can hold your breath - so be aware that ALS may eventually have an impact on breathing.

Who gets ALS?

As many as 20,000-30,000 people in the United States have ALS, and an estimated 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year. ALS is one of the most common neuromuscular diseases worldwide, and people of all races and ethnic backgrounds are affected. ALS most commonly strikes people between 40 and 60 years of age, but younger and older people also can develop the disease. Men are affected more often than women.

In 90 to 95 percent of all ALS cases, the disease occurs apparently at random with no clearly associated risk factors. Patients do not have a family history of the disease, and their family members are not considered to be at increased risk for developing ALS.

About 5 to 10 percent of all ALS cases are inherited. The familial form of ALS usually results from a pattern of inheritance that requires only one parent to carry the gene responsible for the disease. About 20 percent of all familial cases result from a specific genetic defect that leads to mutation of the enzyme known as superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1). Research on this mutation is providing clues about the possible causes of motor neuron death in ALS. Not all familial ALS cases are due to the SOD1 mutation, therefore other unidentified genetic causes clearly exist.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually do not develop until after age 50, but they can start in younger people. Persons with ALS have a loss of muscle strength and coordination that eventually gets worse and makes it impossible to do routine tasks such as going up steps, getting out of a chair, or swallowing.

Breathing or swallowing muscles may be the first muscles affected. As the disease gets worse, more muscle groups develop problems.

ALS does not affect the senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). It only rarely affects bladder or bowel function, or a person's ability to think or reason.

Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Difficulty swallowing

    • Choking easily

    • Drooling

    • Gagging

  • Head drop due to weakness of the neck muscles

  • Muscle cramps

  • Muscle contractions called fasciculations

  • Muscle weakness that slowly gets worse

    • Commonly involves one part of the body first, such as the arm or hand

    • Eventually leads to difficulty lifting, climbing stairs, and walking

  • Paralysis

  • Speech problems, such as a slow or abnormal speech pattern (slurring of words)

  • Voice changes, hoarseness

  • Weight loss

Signs and symptoms

The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body caused by the degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons. Unable to function, the muscles weaken and atrophy. Individuals affected by the disorder may ultimately lose the ability to initiate and control all voluntary movement, although bladder and bowel sphincters and the muscles responsible for eye movement are not always, but usually spared until the terminal stages of the disease.

Cognitive function is generally spared for most patients, although some (about 5%) also have frontotemporal dementia. A higher proportion of patients (30–50%) also have more subtle cognitive changes which may go unnoticed, but are revealed by detailed neuropsychological testing. Sensory nerves and the autonomic nervous system are generally unaffected, meaning the majority of people with ALS will maintain hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste.

Initial symptoms

The earliest symptoms of ALS are typically obvious weakness and/or muscle atrophy. Other presenting symptoms include muscle fasciculation (twitching), cramping, or stiffness of affected muscles; muscle weakness affecting an arm or a leg; and/or slurred and nasal speech. The parts of the body affected by early symptoms of ALS depend on which motor neurons in the body are damaged first. About 75% of people contracting the disease experience "limb onset" ALS, i.e., first symptoms in the arms or legs. Patients with the leg onset form may experience awkwardness when walking or running or notice that they are tripping or stumbling, often with a "dropped foot" which drags gently along the ground. Arm-onset patients may experience difficulty with tasks requiring manual dexterity such as buttoning a shirt, writing, or turning a key in a lock. Occasionally, the symptoms remain confined to one limb for a long period of time or for the whole length of the illness; this is known as monomelic amyotrophy.

About 25% of cases are "bulbar onset" ALS. These patients first notice difficulty speaking clearly or swallowing. Speech may become slurred, nasal in character, or quieter. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing and loss of tongue mobility. A smaller proportion of patients experience "respiratory onset" ALS, where the intercostal muscles that support breathing are affected first. A small proportion of patients may also present with what appears to be frontotemporal dementia, but later progresses to include more typical ALS symptoms.

Over time, patients experience increasing difficulty moving, swallowing (dysphagia), and speaking or forming words (dysarthria). Symptoms of upper motor neuron involvement include tight and stiff muscles (spasticity) and exaggerated reflexes (hyperreflexia) including an overactive gag reflex. An abnormal reflex commonly called Babinski's sign also indicates upper motor neuron damage. Symptoms of lower motor neuron degeneration include muscle weakness and atrophy, muscle cramps, and fleeting twitches of muscles that can be seen under the skin (fasciculations). Around 15–45% of patients experience pseudobulbar affect, also known as "emotional lability", which consists of uncontrollable laughter, crying or smiling, attributable to degeneration of bulbar upper motor neurons resulting in exaggeration of motor expressions of emotion. To be diagnosed with ALS, patients must have signs and symptoms of both upper and lower motor neuron damage that cannot be attributed to other causes.

How is ALS diagnosed?

No one test can provide a definitive diagnosis of ALS, although the presence of upper and lower motor neuron signs in a single limb is strongly suggestive. Instead, the diagnosis of ALS is primarily based on the symptoms and signs the physician observes in the patient and a series of tests to rule out other diseases. Physicians obtain the patient's full medical history and usually conduct a neurologic examination at regular intervals to assess whether symptoms such as muscle weakness, atrophy of muscles, hyperreflexia, and spasticity are getting progressively worse.

Because symptoms of ALS can be similar to those of a wide variety of other, more treatable diseases or disorders, appropriate tests must be conducted to exclude the possibility of other conditions. One of these tests is electromyography (EMG), a special recording technique that detects electrical activity in muscles. Certain EMG findings can support the diagnosis of ALS. Another common test measures nerve conduction velocity (NCV). Specific abnormalities in the NCV results may suggest, for example, that the patient has a form of peripheral neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves) or myopathy (muscle disease) rather than ALS. The physician may order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a noninvasive procedure that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of the brain and spinal cord. Although these MRI scans are often normal in patients with ALS, they can reveal evidence of other problems that may be causing the symptoms, such as a spinal cord tumor, a herniated disk in the neck, syringomyelia, or cervical spondylosis.

Based on the patient's symptoms and findings from the examination and from these tests, the physician may order tests on blood and urine samples to eliminate the possibility of other diseases as well as routine laboratory tests. In some cases, for example, if a physician suspects that the patient may have a myopathy rather than ALS, a muscle biopsy may be performed.

Infectious diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV), and Lyme disease can in some cases cause ALS-like symptoms. Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, multifocal motor neuropathy, and spinal muscular atrophy also can mimic certain facets of the disease and should be considered by physicians attempting to make a diagnosis.

Because of the prognosis carried by this diagnosis and the variety of diseases or disorders that can resemble ALS in the early stages of the disease, patients may wish to obtain a second neurological opinion.

What causes ALS?

The cause of ALS is not known, and scientists do not yet know why ALS strikes some people and not others. An important step toward answering that question came in 1993 when scientists supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) discovered that mutations in the gene that produces the SOD1 enzyme were associated with some cases of familial ALS. This enzyme is a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules produced by cells during normal metabolism. If not neutralized, free radicals can accumulate and cause random damage to the DNA and proteins within cells. Although it is not yet clear how the SOD1 gene mutation leads to motor neuron degeneration, researchers have theorized that an accumulation of free radicals may result from the faulty functioning of this gene. In support of this, animal studies have shown that motor neuron degeneration and deficits in motor function accompany the presence of the SOD1 mutation.

Studies also have focused on the role of glutamate in motor neuron degeneration. Glutamate is one of the chemical messengers or neurotransmitters in the brain. Scientists have found that, compared to healthy people, ALS patients have higher levels of glutamate in the serum and spinal fluid. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that neurons begin to die off when they are exposed over long periods to excessive amounts of glutamate. Now, scientists are trying to understand what mechanisms lead to a buildup of unneeded glutamate in the spinal fluid and how this imbalance could contribute to the development of ALS.

Autoimmune responses—which occur when the body's immune system attacks normal cells—have been suggested as one possible cause for motor neuron degeneration in ALS. Some scientists theorize that antibodies may directly or indirectly impair the function of motor neurons, interfering with the transmission of signals between the brain and muscles.

In searching for the cause of ALS, researchers have also studied environmental factors such as exposure to toxic or infectious agents. Other research has examined the possible role of dietary deficiency or trauma. However, as of yet, there is insufficient evidence to implicate these factors as causes of ALS.

Future research may show that many factors, including a genetic predisposition, are involved in the development of AL.

How is ALS treated?

No cure has yet been found for ALS. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first drug treatment for the disease—riluzole (Rilutek). Riluzole is believed to reduce damage to motor neurons by decreasing the release of glutamate. Clinical trials with ALS patients showed that riluzole prolongs survival by several months, mainly in those with difficulty swallowing. The drug also extends the time before a patient needs ventilation support. Riluzole does not reverse the damage already done to motor neurons, and patients taking the drug must be monitored for liver damage and other possible side effects. However, this first disease-specific therapy offers hope that the progression of ALS may one day be slowed by new medications or combinations of drugs.

Other treatments for ALS are designed to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. This supportive care is best provided by multidisciplinary teams of health care professionals such as physicians; pharmacists; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; nutritionists; social workers; and home care and hospice nurses. Working with patients and caregivers, these teams can design an individualized plan of medical and physical therapy and provide special equipment aimed at keeping patients as mobile and comfortable as possible.

Physicians can prescribe medications to help reduce fatigue, ease muscle cramps, control spasticity, and reduce excess saliva and phlegm. Drugs also are available to help patients with pain, depression, sleep disturbances, and constipation. Pharmacists can give advice on the proper use of medications and monitor a patient's prescriptions to avoid risks of drug interactions.

Physical therapy and special equipment can enhance patients' independence and safety throughout the course of ALS. Gentle, low-impact aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, and stationary bicycling can strengthen unaffected muscles, improve cardiovascular health, and help patients fight fatigue and depression. Range of motion and stretching exercises can help prevent painful spasticity and shortening (contracture) of muscles. Physical therapists can recommend exercises that provide these benefits without overworking muscles. Occupational therapists can suggest devices such as ramps, braces, walkers, and wheelchairs that help patients conserve energy and remain mobile.

ALS patients who have difficulty speaking may benefit from working with a speech therapist. These health professionals can teach patients adaptive strategies such as techniques to help them speak louder and more clearly. As ALS progresses, speech therapists can help patients develop ways for responding to yes-or-no questions with their eyes or by other nonverbal means and can recommend aids such as speech synthesizers and computer-based communication systems. These methods and devices help patients communicate when they can no longer speak or produce vocal sounds.

Patients and caregivers can learn from speech therapists and nutritionists how to plan and prepare numerous small meals throughout the day that provide enough calories, fiber, and fluid and how to avoid foods that are difficult to swallow. Patients may begin using suction devices to remove excess fluids or saliva and prevent choking. When patients can no longer get enough nourishment from eating, doctors may advise inserting a feeding tube into the stomach. The use of a feeding tube also reduces the risk of choking and pneumonia that can result from inhaling liquids into the lungs. The tube is not painful and does not prevent patients from eating food orally if they wish.

When the muscles that assist in breathing weaken, use of nocturnal ventilatory assistance (intermittent positive pressure ventilation [IPPV] or bilevel positive airway pressure [BIPAP]) may be used to aid breathing during sleep. Such devices artificially inflate the patient's lungs from various external sources that are applied directly to the face or body. When muscles are no longer able to maintain oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, these devices may be used full-time.

Patients may eventually consider forms of mechanical ventilation (respirators) in which a machine inflates and deflates the lungs. To be effective, this may require a tube that passes from the nose or mouth to the windpipe (trachea) and for long-term use, an operation such as a tracheostomy, in which a plastic breathing tube is inserted directly in the patient's windpipe through an opening in the neck. Patients and their families should consider several factors when deciding whether and when to use one of these options. Ventilation devices differ in their effect on the patient's quality of life and in cost. Although ventilation support can ease problems with breathing and prolong survival, it does not affect the progression of ALS. Patients need to be fully informed about these considerations and the long-term effects of life without movement before they make decisions about ventilation support.

Social workers and home care and hospice nurses help patients, families, and caregivers with the medical, emotional, and financial challenges of coping with ALS, particularly during the final stages of the disease. Social workers provide support such as assistance in obtaining financial aid, arranging durable power of attorney, preparing a living will, and finding support groups for patients and caregivers. Respiratory therapists can help caregivers with tasks such as operating and maintaining respirators, and home care nurses are available not only to provide medical care but also to teach caregivers about giving tube feedings and moving patients to avoid painful skin problems and contractures. Home hospice nurses work in consultation with physicians to ensure proper medication, pain control, and other care affecting the quality of life of patients who wish to remain at home. The home hospice team can also counsel patients and caregivers about end-of-life issues.

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will take a medical history, which includes strength and endurance.

A physical examination of strength shows weakness, often beginning in one area. There may be muscle tremors, spasms, twitching, or loss of muscle tissue (atrophy). Atrophy and twitching of the tongue are common.

The person's walk may be stiff or clumsy. Reflexes are abnormal. There are increased reflexes at the joints, but there may be a loss of the gag reflex. Some patients have trouble controlling crying or laughing. This is sometimes called "emotional incontinence."

Tests that may be done include:

  • Blood tests to rule out other conditions

  • Breathing test to see if lung muscles are affected

  • Cervical spine CT or MRI to be sure there is no disease or injury to the neck, which can mimic ALS

  • Electromyography to see which nerves do not work properly

  • Genetic testing, if there is a family history of ALS

  • Head CT or MRI to rule out other conditions

  • Nerve conduction studies

  • Swallowing studies

  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture)

Treatment

There is no known cure for ALS. The first drug treatment for the disease is a medicine called riluzole. Riluzole slows the disease progression and prolongs life.

Treatments to control symptoms are also helpful:

  • Baclofen or diazepam may be used to control spasticity that interferes with daily activities.

  • Trihexyphenidyl or amitriptyline may be prescribed for people with problems swallowing their own saliva.

Physical therapy, rehabilitation, use of braces or a wheelchair, or other orthopedic measures may be needed to maximize muscle function and general health.

Choking is common. Patients may decide to have a tube placed into their stomach for feeding. This is called a gastrostomy.

A nutritionist is very important. Patients with ALS tend to lose weight. The illness itself increases the need for food and calories. At the same time, problems with swallowing make it hard to eat enough.

Breathing devices include machines that are used only at night, and constant mechanical ventilation.

Patients should discuss their wishes regarding artificial ventilation with their families and doctors.

When a patient's initial symptoms are hand weakness, they may notice that they are dropping things and have difficulty performing fine motor tasks such as pinching, writing, typing, managing buttons or zippers and picking up small objects such as coins and paper clips. Patients with shoulder weakness may have trouble using their arms above the head in activities such as combing their hair or lifting things.

Patients with lower extremity weakness most often notice a foot drop. They have a "slapping" gait and are prone to trip. Some with weakness in the thigh and hip will have difficulty climbing stairs and rising from chairs.

About one in five are initially diagnosed because they have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or slurred speech (dysarthria). These symptoms are due to weakness of muscles in throat and mouth.

As the disease progresses, weakness spreads to other parts of the body. Difficulty breathing can lead to the need for mechanical ventilation. Infection, especially pneumonia, is a common problem with end stage ALS. The median survival from the time of diagnosis is three to five years. About 10 percent of ALS patients can live 10 years or more. Survival beyond 20 years is rare.

A number of drugs have been tested for this disease and several are in clinical trials. Neurology departments at medical schools are the best place to find these trials. Riluzole is the only drug that has impact on survival. It does slow ALS progression but only marginally. Those who are most likely to benefit from riluzole have had symptoms for less than five years and have very little respiratory impairment.

There are a number of diseases that can be mistaken for ALS. Among them are cervical disk disease (cervical radiculomyelopathy) post-polio syndrome, inflammatory myopathy, myasthenia gravis and hyperthyroidism. Physicians considering the diagnosis of ALS work hard to exclude those diseases that have very effective treatments.

What research is being done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the Federal Government's leading supporter of biomedical research on ALS. The goals of this research are to find the cause or causes of ALS, understand the mechanisms involved in the progression of the disease, and develop effective treatment.

Scientists are seeking to understand the mechanisms that trigger selective motor neurons to degenerate in ALS and to find effective approaches to halt the processes leading to cell death. This work includes studies in animals to identify the means by which SOD1 mutations lead to the destruction of neurons. The excessive accumulation of free radicals, which has been implicated in a number of neurodegenerative diseases including ALS, is also being closely studied. In addition, researchers are examining how the loss of neurotrophic factors may be involved in ALS. Neurotrophic factors are chemicals found in the brain and spinal cord that play a vital role in the development, specification, maintenance, and protection of neurons. Studying how these factors may be lost and how such a loss may contribute to motor neuron degeneration may lead to a greater understanding of ALS and the development of neuroprotective strategies. By exploring these and other possible factors, researchers hope to find the cause or causes of motor neuron degeneration in ALS and develop therapies to slow the progression of the disease.

Researchers are also conducting investigations to increase their understanding of the role of programmed cell death or apoptosis in ALS. In normal physiological processes, apoptosis acts as a means to rid the body of cells that are no longer needed by prompting the cells to commit "cell suicide." The critical balance between necessary cell death and the maintenance of essential cells is thought to be controlled by trophic factors. In addition to ALS, apoptosis is pervasive in other chronic neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease and is thought to be a major cause of the secondary brain damage seen after stroke and trauma. Discovering what triggers apoptosis may eventually lead to therapeutic interventions for ALS and other neurological diseases.

Scientists have not yet identified a reliable biological marker for ALS—a biochemical abnormality shared by all patients with the disease. Once such a biomarker is discovered and tests are developed to detect the marker in patients, allowing early detection and diagnosis of ALS, physicians will have a valuable tool to help them follow the effects of new therapies and monitor disease progression.

NINDS-supported researchers are studying families with ALS who lack the SOD1 mutation to locate additional genes that cause the disease. Identification of additional ALS genes will allow genetic testing useful for diagnostic confirmation of ALS and prenatal screening for the disease. This work with familial ALS could lead to a greater understanding of sporadic ALS as well. Because familial ALS is virtually indistinguishable from sporadic ALS clinically, some researchers believe that familial ALS genes may also be involved in the manifestations of the more common sporadic form of ALS. Scientists also hope to identify genetic risk factors that predispose people to sporadic ALS.

Potential therapies for ALS are being investigated in animal models. Some of this work involves experimental treatments with normal SOD1 and other antioxidants. In addition, neurotrophic factors are being studied for their potential to protect motor neurons from pathological degeneration. Investigators are optimistic that these and other basic research studies will eventually lead to treatments for ALS.

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