10 Symptoms of ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive and degenerative disease that affects the nervous system. It attacks those cells within the spinal cord and brain that control the movement of muscles. It does not, however, affect any of the senses like sight or hearing. Nor does ALS usually affect the bladder or the bowel.

There is currently no cure for ALS, and most patients survive for two to five years after the first appearance of their symptoms. About ten percent survive for ten years or longer. The physicist Stephen Hawking, 76, has survived for over 50 years. He has a very rare early-onset form that progresses extremely slowly. A patient’s life expectancy depends on if and when their swallowing muscles and/or diaphragm are affected. If they’re not, the patient can survive for years or even decades.

1. Muscle Weakness

There are at least two forms of ALS: limb-onset ALS and bulbar-onset ALS. Both are categorized by their earliest symptoms. In bulbar-onset ALS, which affects 25 percent of patients, speech problems are the earliest symptoms. In limb-onset ALS, the most common type, the patient develops twitching and cramps in at least one limb. They will also experience balance problems and weakness in their hands and feet.

In many cases, the first symptoms affect a hand and arm. The patient notices that they are starting to have trouble with simple tasks like turning a key in a lock, buttoning a shirt, or writing a letter. If the ALS attacks a leg first, the patient may find they are tripping or stumbling more often. Walking and running become increasingly difficult.

As the disease progresses, the muscle weakness spreads to other parts of the body. As their limbs all weaken, the patient loses the ability to stand or walk, use their hands, and get out of bed unassisted. The patient’s muscles also atrophy or become smaller. In late-stage ALS, the muscles in the respiratory system weaken, and the patient has trouble breathing. Many depend on a ventilator for they can no longer breathe on their own. Late-stage patients also become increasingly vulnerable to respiratory diseases like pneumonia.