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Categories > Brain and Nervous System Disorders > Lou Gehrig’s disease

The facts about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
Who gets ALS?
Diagnosing and treating ALS
Holding out hope


When to get help
When to get help

Has one of your limbs slowly gotten weaker? Does it also cramp and twitch? If so, tell your doctor. Symptoms of other treatable conditions mimic ALS, so it’s important to get diagnosed and treated promptly.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating disease that causes nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to break down and die, eventually leading to weakened and withered muscles. In time, ALS—also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the New York Yankee ballplayer diagnosed with the disorder almost 70 years ago—results in partial paralysis and premature death, usually from respiratory failure when the muscles used to breathe become paralyzed. While doctors cannot prevent or cure ALS, they can make life more comfortable for those living with the disease.

Who gets ALS?

Up to 30,000 Americans—about two in 100,000 people—have ALS, which affects slightly more men than women. Each year, doctors diagnose nearly 6,000 people with this noncontagious disease. Most patients are between ages 40 and 70 (average age at diagnosis is 55). About 90 percent of the time, ALS occurs randomly—which doctors refer to as sporadic ALS. The disease is inherited (called familial ALS) in nearly 10 percent of cases. Scientists aren’t sure what triggers the disease, but because people with ALS appear to have too much of the brain chemical glutamate, researchers think a connection may exist.

The disease’s signs vary with each patient but can include:

  • muscle weakness, especially in the arms or legs
  • cramps and twitching in the arms, shoulders or tongue
  • progressive weakness in the limbs, ankles or feet
  • clumsiness while walking, frequent tripping or falling
  • periods of uncontrolled laughing or crying
  • difficulty swallowing, speaking or breathing
  • fatigue along with any of the above conditions

Diagnosing and treating ALS

Since the signs of ALS can resemble other disorders, it may take weeks or months of testing before a doctor can diagnose the disease while ruling out other conditions. Tests may include blood and urine screenings, imaging exams, muscle or nerve biopsies or a spinal tap.

The first FDA-approved medication for treating ALS, riluzole, can reduce damage to nerve cells and prolong survival. Other medications can ease muscle cramps, reduce fatigue and combat symptoms such as constipation and excessive salivation. Speech and physical therapists can help a patient retain the ability to speak and move for a longer time.

Holding out hope

Fifty percent of people with ALS live at least three years after diagnosis. Twenty percent live five years or longer. ALS does not normally affect a patient’s ability to think, see, feel, hear, taste or smell. Esteemed British physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS more than 40 years ago. Since then, he has married and fathered three children. Today he continues to make great contributions to the field of physics.