Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive condition that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The ALS Association estimates that 5,600 new cases of ALS are diagnosed each year in the United States -- approximately one new case every 90 minutes. The early symptoms vary from one person to the next, but progressive muscle weakness and, eventually, paralysis are common to all cases.
Approximately 60% of ALS patients experience muscle weakness, particularly in the hands, arms and legs. People notice this weakness in different ways. Some have trouble picking up items they normally handle with ease. Others begin tripping over obstacles as small as throw rugs or the thresholds of doorways.
Muscle cramping -- particularly in the hands and feet -- is very common in patients with ALS. Physicians believe that the cramping is caused by muscle fatigue as well as spasticity or tightening of the muscles. As the disease progresses, the muscle cramps can become very painful. Along with the cramps, many experience muscle twitching. This is an involuntary constriction of the muscle caused by irritated nerves. The twitching is not painful but can become very annoying, especially at night when it disrupts sleep patterns.
ALS also affects the muscles related to speech, swallowing, and breathing. Slurred speech and difficulty projecting the voice are common symptoms that should be reviewed with a physician.
As the disease progresses, patients may have trouble breathing or swallowing.
ALS patients may experience periods of uncontrollable crying or laughing. These outbursts do not portray their current emotions. Instead, they are caused by the damage to the upper motor neurons. Although these emotions are not related to depression, some people benefit from the use of antidepressants to control these situations.