I’m sorry, Mr. Stuart. You have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.” The doctor then gave me the dismal prognosis: Soon I would no longer be able to move or speak, and the disease would eventually take my life. “How much time do I have?” I asked. “Probably three or five years, I replied. I was just 20 years old. Yet, despite the sad news, I could not help but feel blessed in many ways.
WHAT IS ALS?
ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] is a disease that progress rapidly and attacks the motor neurons [nerve cells] in the spinal cord and lower brain. The motor neurons are responsible for transmitting messages from the brain to the voluntary muscles throughout the body. ALS causes the motor neurons to degenerate or die, leading to progressive paralysis.
There are three common classifications of ALS: SPORADIC [the most common], FAMILIAL [about 5 to 10 percent of cases have a family history], and GUAMANIAN [a high number of cases have occurred in Guam and the trust territories of the Pacific].
WHY IS ALS ALSO CALLED LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE?
Lou Gehrig was a famous American baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 1939 and died in 1941 at 38 years of age. In some lands ALS is called motor neuron disease, which is a broader category of illnesses that includes ALS. ALS is also sometimes referred to as CHARCOT’S disease, after Jean-Martin Charcot, the French neurologist who first described it in 1869.
WHAT CAUSES ALS?
The cause of ALS is not known. According to researchers, the suspected causes include viruses, protein deficiencies, genetic defects [especially in Guamanian ALS], immune-system abnormalities, and enzyme abnormalities.
WHAT IS THE PROGNOSIS?
As the disease progresses, muscles weakness and atrophy spread throughout the body. In later stages the disease weakens the muscles of the respiratory system, and eventually patients must depend on a ventilator. Because the disease affects only the motor neurons, it does not impair the patient’s mind, personality, intelligence, or memory. Neither does it impair the senses –patients are able to see, smell, taste, hear, and recognize touch. ALS usually proves fatal within three to five years of the onset of symptoms, but up to 10 percent of patients may survive for ten years or more.
WHAT IS DONE TO TREAT THE DISEASE?
There is no known cure for ALS. A doctor may prescribe medications to help reduce the discomforts associated with certain symptoms. Depending on the symptoms and the stage of the disease, the patient may benefit from certain rehabilitation services, including physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, and various assistive devices.