While the internet is filled with information on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), we’ll offer a basic overview. ALS is a motor neuron disease, first described in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Lou Gehrig brought worldwide attention to the disease in 1939, when he abruptly retired from baseball after his ALS diagnosis. While we’ve achieved a much greater understanding of the disease since, the sad reality is that the cure still remains elusive. But every day and every research dollar raised brings us a step closer to unlocking a cure.
Most commonly, the disease strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time. It’s a neurodegenerative disease that usually attacks both upper and lower motor neurons and causes degeneration throughout the brain and spinal cord. A common first symptom is a painless weakness in a hand, foot, arm or leg, which occurs in more than half of all cases. Other early symptoms include difficulty with speech, swallowing or walking.
As the disease progresses, it robs patients of the use of their hands, arms and legs, as well as their ability to speak, swallow and, ultimately, breathe on their own. Familial ALS (genetically handed down between generations) represents between five to ten percent of all cases. The rest happen spontaneously and mysteriously, making seemingly random attacks on previously healthy adults. The simple fact is, ALS can strike anyone, anytime.
Even though options for treating ALS have emerged in recent years, physicians still have very limited choices. Studies suggest that patients' length of survival and quality of life are enhanced by night-time breathing assistance early in the course of the disease and by aggressive application of alternate feeding options to assure good nutrition once swallowing becomes difficult.
Recent years have brought a wealth of new scientific understanding regarding the physiology of this disease. There are currently four drugs approved by the U.S. FDA to treat ALS (Riluzole, Nuedexta, Radicava, and Tiglutik). Studies all over the world, many funded by The Association, are ongoing to develop more treatments and a cure for ALS.
While we’re still working on unlocking the ALS mystery, it’s heartening to know that more significant advances have been made in the past decade than the nearly century and a half since Charcot identified the disease. Which gives us hope and encourages us to step up our efforts to find a cure.
Click here to see more updates on research at our National ALS website.