Also known as motor neuron disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a serious disorder that is characterized by the degeneration of motor neurons. The following article highlights the symptoms and diagnosis associated with this disorder.
ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It is a degenerative neurological disorder. This disease affects the motor neurons of the body and slowly brings about their degeneration. It impacts almost all the voluntary muscles of the body. This is a rare genetic disorder which affects thousands of people all over the world. There are about 20,000 ALS patients in the US alone. Every year, about 5000 new patients are diagnosed with this disorder. Although people in the age group of 40 to 60 are more vulnerable to this disease, younger and older people can also get affected.
The most notable example of this disease is the well-known physicist, Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with this disease at the age of 21. Since then, Hawking has successfully battled with this disease for a long period of 45 years. Another famous personality affected by this disease is the legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig, after whom the disease is named as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS can affect people of any origin and ethnicity, irrespective of their geographic location. Earlier it was considered that this disorder strikes more men than women, but this belief has been ruled out by a study which showed that women are equally likely to inherit this disease. The average life expectancy of the patient is 2 – 5 years from the time of diagnosis. About 10% of people cross that barrier and may live longer.
The early symptoms may not be unique to this disorder. As a result, there is often a delay in the diagnosis of this disease. The person reports the symptoms only when serious symptoms surface.
The early symptoms include numbness of limbs, muscle pain, muscle fatigue, and muscle twitching. The person may find it increasingly difficult to lift or pull things due to weakness in the muscles. Tasks such as dressing and washing become challenging. The degeneration of the motor neurons prevents the person from moving his arms. The leg muscles also begin to lose strength which results in impaired walking, tripping, and falling. The person no longer is able to support his weight and often loses his balance. A condition named emotional incontinence also occurs, which hampers the person’s ability to control his emotions like laughing and crying. Once the person starts laughing or crying, he may not be able to suppress it for a very long time.
ALS usually does not affect the senses of the person such as sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell, etc. It also does not affect the intelligence of the person and his cognitive abilities. In most cases, the person also has control over the movements of the eye till the end. Slurred speech and dysphagia (inability to swallow liquids or foods) might also surface as the disease progresses further. Eventually, the person loses complete control over his voluntary movements, and has to stay in a bedridden condition. The breathing is shallow in the later stages, as the muscles of the lung also begin to weaken. Shortness of breath may progress into pneumonia or other such respiratory disorders. This is the final stage of the disease where the person has to completely rely upon ventilation system for survival. Even with the aid of a ventilator, the survival chances for the person are slim.
Since there are no unique symptoms, the task of diagnosis becomes difficult. As a result, the possibility of other diseases is ruled out to confirm ALS. Some tests that are performed include:
- Electromyogram (EMG): A needle is inserted into the muscles to check the electrical activity inside them. It detects the level of working of the muscles.
- Nerve Conduction Velocity (NCV): This test involves passing of electric impulse or shock to a nerve in order to measure the velocity of the nerve signal.
- Spinal Tap: This test involves the extraction of fluid from the spinal cord to test for any abnormalities.
- X-Rays and MRI Scan: It checks the abnormalities in the spinal cord with the help of computerized images.
- Blood/Urine Test: It is done to detect the presence of abnormal substances in the blood and urine.
- Muscle or Nerve Biopsy: Small sample of tissue is removed from the muscle or nerve, and sent for laboratory testing.
Early diagnosis may help you to seek a variety of treatment options. Although, this disease has no cure, certain palliative measures can at least improve the quality of life of a patient.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.