Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive degeneration of nerve cells that control muscle movements. The disease, the most common motor neuron disease among adults, became known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankee’s Hall of Fame first baseman. Gehrig’s career ended in 1939 because of the condition.
About 30,000 patients in North America have the disease and about 5,000 are diagnosed with ALS every year. ALS tends to strike in mid-life between the ages of 40 and 60, but others can develop the disease. Men are about one-and-a-half times more likely to have the disease than women. In most cases, it occurs at random with no family history of the disease.
At first, symptoms of ALS may be barely noticed. But over time, the disease worsens. As nerve cells die, the muscles they control stop acting and reacting correctly.
- Muscles in the arms, shoulders and tongue may cramp or twitch.
- One or more limbs may lose strength and coordination.
- Feet and ankles may become weak, so walking may become clumsy or stiff, and feet may drag.
- Swallowing, speaking or breathing may become difficult.
- You may become fatigued.
Eventually, ALS weakens muscles, including muscles used for breathing, until they become paralyzed. Unable to swallow, patients with ALS may aspirate or inhale food or saliva into their lungs. In fact, most people with ALS die of respiratory failure. The ability to think, see, hear, smell, taste and touch, however, usually is not affected.
Currently there is only one approved medication for the treatment of ALS: Riluzole (Rilutek). It is believed to reduce damage to motor neurons and may also offer other neuroprotective effects. Clinical trials with ALS patients showed that Riluzole lengthens survival by several months. 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.
Other treatments for ALS are designed to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. There is no known cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease at this time.