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What is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease that affects the muscles, brain, and nervous system. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the debilitating condition can be caused by a number of different factors, including genetic predisposition, immune system malfunctions, and the overproduction of glutamate in the body. Individuals with the disease often experience significant muscle cramps and weakness, as well as difficulty speaking and swallowing. Left untreated, it can cause paralysis, dementia, and even death. It is vital to seek the guidance of an expert physician when experiencing some or all of the symptoms of ALS.

An individual in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis often displays a number of evident symptoms. Most people experience significant muscle weakness and related symptoms of fatigue at the onset of the disorder. As motor neurons deteriorate and muscles begin to atrophy, individuals often suffer from cramps and twitching in their legs and arms. Many people have difficulty speaking and swallowing as a result of damaged muscles in the tongue and throat.

As the disease progresses, people usually lose the ability to stand or sit up unassisted. Many people experience complete paralysis due to extensive muscle damage. Breathing becomes very difficult, and swallowing food and liquids is near impossible. Individuals may eventually show signs of dementia, and long-term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis usually causes death.

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There is no known cure for ALS, although treating the disease in its earliest stages can help slow the progression and relieve some symptoms. A trained doctor can perform a number of tests to diagnose the condition, such as blood tests, biopsies, and magnetic resonance imaging procedures. Once amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is confirmed as the cause of a person's troubles, the doctor can prescribe medications to help treat symptoms. Physicians commonly prescribe medications to reduce muscle cramps, fatigue, and pain. A drug known as riluzole has shown to provide relief from glutamate-induced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

People with the disease often benefit from attending sessions with physical therapists, speech pathologists, and psychologists. Physical therapists help individuals maintain muscle strength by tailoring specific exercise programs to their abilities. Speech pathologists can help individuals learn to speak as clearly as possible despite their condition. Counselors and psychologists provide people with encouragement and help them cope with daily struggles. With the aid of medications and support from medical and mental health professionals, many people with the disorder are able to adjust to difficulties and enjoy their lives.

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