Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
(ALS; Lou Gehrig's Disease; Motor Neuron Disease)
by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a nervous system disorder that worsens over time. It affects nerves in the brain and spine that are responsible for muscle movement. The nerves gradually die, which can lead to almost total paralysis, including being unable to breathe. ALS is fatal, often due to respiratory failure.
The cause of ALS is unknown. Genes may play a role.
The symptoms of ALS are caused by the death of the nerves. If the nerves can't send signals to the muscle, then they are unable to work. Overtime, the muscles become weak and shrink from lack of use.
Factors that may increase your chance of ALS include:
Military veterans have twice the risk of ALS as the general population. It is not clear why.
The first signs of ALS are subtle and can be different from person to person. They may include:
The speed of the progression can be very different between people. As the disease progresses it can lead to:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. There are no tests that can specifically diagnose ALS. Instead, tests will be done to rule out other medical conditions.
Imaging tests to look for changes in the brain or spine may include:
Other tests may include:
Your muscles and nerves may also be checked. This can be done with electromyogram (EMG)/nerve conduction velocities (NCV).
Your thinking and processing skills may also be checked.
There is currently no cure for ALS. A combination of treatments may help to reduce or manage symptoms. Treatment options include:
The drug riluzole and edaravone have been approved for ALS. The drugs may slightly improve functioning, but it does not stop the disease from progressing.
Medications may include:
Other Types of Treatments
Supportive care may be needed as ALS progresses, including:
There are no current guidelines to prevent ALS because the cause is unknown.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Society of British Columbia
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1/14/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed... : Mateen FJ, Carone M, Sorenson EJ. Patients who survive 5 years or more with ALS in Olmsted County, 1925-2004. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2010;81(10):1144-1146.
9/3/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at: http://www.dynamed...: Wippold FJ, Cornelius RS, Broderick DF, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria for dementia and movement disorders. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated 2014. Accessed February 12, 2016.
9/26/2017 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at: http://www.dynamed... : US Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves drug to treat ALS. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm557102.htm. Published May 5, 2017. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 9/26/2017
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