(See also Overview of Peripheral Nervous System Disorders Overview of Peripheral Nervous System Disorders The peripheral nervous system refers to parts of the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord. It includes the cranial nerves and spinal nerves from their origin to their end. The anterior... read more .)
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is the most common motor neuron disease (MND). MNDs may involve the central nervous system (CNS) as well as the peripheral nervous system. Usually, etiology is unknown. Nomenclature and symptoms vary according to the part of the motor system most affected.
Myopathies Congenital Myopathies Congenital myopathy is a term sometimes applied to hundreds of distinct neuromuscular disorders that may be present at birth, but it is usually reserved for a group of rare, inherited, primary... read more have similar features but are disorders of the muscle membrane, contractile apparatus, or organelles.
MNDs can be classified as upper and lower; some disorders (eg, ALS) have features of both. MNDs are more common among men, most often appearing during their 50s.
Symptoms and Signs
Upper MNDs (eg, primary lateral sclerosis) affect neurons of the motor cortex, which extend to the brain stem (corticobulbar tracts) or spinal cord (corticospinal tracts). Generally, symptoms consist of stiffness, clumsiness, and awkward movements, usually affecting first the mouth, throat, or both, then spreading to the limbs.
Lower MNDs affect the anterior horn cells or cranial nerve motor nuclei or their efferent axons to the skeletal muscles. In bulbar palsies, only the cranial nerve motor nuclei in the brain stem (bulbar nuclei) are affected. Patients usually present with facial weakness, dysphagia, and dysarthria. When anterior horn cells of spinal (not cranial) nerves are affected, as in spinal muscular atrophies Spinal Muscular Atrophies (SMAs) Spinal muscular atrophies include several types of hereditary disorders characterized by skeletal muscle wasting due to progressive degeneration of anterior horn cells in the spinal cord and... read more , symptoms usually include muscle weakness and atrophy, fasciculations (visible muscle twitches), and muscle cramps, initially in a hand, a foot, or the tongue. Poliomyelitis Poliomyelitis Poliomyelitis is an acute infection caused by a poliovirus (an enterovirus). Manifestations include a nonspecific minor illness (abortive poliomyelitis), sometimes aseptic meningitis without... read more , an enteroviral infection that attacks anterior horn cells, and postpolio syndrome Postpoliomyelitis Syndrome Postpoliomyelitis syndrome is a group of symptoms that develops years or decades after paralytic poliomyelitis and usually affects the same muscle groups as the initial infection. In patients... read more are also lower MNDs.
Physical findings help differentiate upper from lower MNDs (see table Distinguishing Upper From Lower Motor Neuron Lesions Distinguishing Upper From Lower Motor Neuron Lesions Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other motor neuron diseases are characterized by steady, relentless, progressive degeneration of corticospinal tracts, anterior horn cells, bulbar motor nuclei... read more ) and weakness due to lower MNDs from that due to myopathy (see table Distinguishing the Cause of Muscle Weakness: Lower Motor Neuron Dysfunction vs Myopathy Distinguishing the Cause of Muscle Weakness: Lower Motor Neuron Dysfunction vs Myopathy* Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other motor neuron diseases are characterized by steady, relentless, progressive degeneration of corticospinal tracts, anterior horn cells, bulbar motor nuclei... read more ).
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Most patients with ALS present with random, asymmetric symptoms, consisting of cramps, weakness, and muscle atrophy of the hands (most commonly) or feet. Weakness progresses to the forearms, shoulders, and lower limbs. Fasciculations, spasticity, hyperactive deep tendon reflexes, extensor plantar reflexes, clumsiness, stiffness of movement, weight loss, fatigue, and difficulty controlling facial expression and tongue movements soon follow.
Other symptoms include hoarseness, dysphagia, and slurred speech; because swallowing is difficult, salivation appears to increase, and patients tend to choke on liquids.
Late in the disorder, a pseudobulbar affect occurs, with inappropriate, involuntary, and uncontrollable excesses of laughter or crying. Sensory systems, consciousness, cognition, voluntary eye movements, sexual function, and urinary and anal sphincters are usually spared.
Death is usually caused by failure of the respiratory muscles; 50% of patients die within 3 years of onset, 20% live 5 years, and 10% live 10 years. Survival for > 30 years is rare.
Progressive bulbar palsy
The bulbar muscles innervated by cranial nerves are predominantly affected, resulting from progressive degeneration of the motor neurons innervating bulbar musculature. This disorder causes progressive difficulty with chewing, swallowing, and talking; a nasal voice; reduced gag reflex; fasciculations and weak movement of the facial muscles and tongue; and weak palatal movement. Aspiration is a risk.
The upper motor neuron equivalent of this disorder is progressive pseudobulbar palsy. This disorder affects the corticobulbar tract, descending to bulbar lower motor neurons, but spares the lower motor neurons in the brain stem, causing upper motor neuron weakness of the bulbar muscles. and thus is called pseudobulbar. Speech is spastic, patients cannot rapidly repeat syllables, (kakaka, tatata, lalala, bababa); gag reflex and jaw jerk are brisk. A pseudobulbar affect with emotional lability may also occur.
Commonly, progressive bulbar palsy spreads, affecting extrabulbar segments; then it is called bulbar-variant ALS.
Patients with dysphagia have a very poor prognosis; respiratory complications due to aspiration frequently result in death within 1 to 3 years.
Progressive muscular atrophy
In many cases, especially those with childhood onset, inheritance is autosomal recessive. Other cases are sporadic. The disorder can develop at any age.
Anterior horn cell involvement occurs alone or is more prominent than corticospinal involvement, and progression tends to be more benign than that of other MNDs.
Fasciculations may be the earliest manifestation. Muscle wasting and marked weakness begin in the hands and progress to the arms, shoulders, and legs, eventually becoming generalized. Deep tendon reflexes are hypoactive. Patients may survive ≥ 25 years.
Pearls & Pitfalls
Primary lateral sclerosis
In primary lateral sclerosis, progressive muscle stiffness in the arms and legs occurs with spasticity and hyperreflexia during examination. Fasciculations and muscle atrophy are atypical for this predominantly upper motor neuron disorder.
Survival is prolonged because risk of aspiration and pneumonia is low; several years must pass to result in total disability.
MRI of the brain and, if no cranial nerve involvement, cervical spine
Laboratory tests to check for other, treatable causes
Diagnosis of motor neuron diseases is suggested by progressive, generalized motor weakness without significant sensory abnormalities.
Other disorders that cause pure muscle weakness should be ruled out:
Various myopathies (including noninflammatory and drug-induced)
Thyroid disorders Overview of Thyroid Function The thyroid gland, located in the anterior neck just below the cricoid cartilage, consists of 2 lobes connected by an isthmus. Follicular cells in the gland produce the 2 main thyroid hormones... read more and adrenal disorders Overview of Adrenal Function The adrenal glands, located on the cephalad portion of each kidney (see figure Adrenal glands), consist of a Cortex Medulla The adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla each have separate endocrine... read more
Electrolyte abnormalities (eg, hypokalemia Hypokalemia Hypokalemia is serum potassium concentration 3.5 mEq/L ( 3.5 mmol/L) caused by a deficit in total body potassium stores or abnormal movement of potassium into cells. The most common cause is... read more , hypercalcemia Hypercalcemia Hypercalcemia is a total serum calcium concentration > 10.4 mg/dL (> 2.60 mmol/L) or ionized serum calcium > 5.2 mg/dL (> 1.30 mmol/L). Principal causes include hyperparathyroidism, vitamin... read more , hypophosphatemia Hypophosphatemia Hypophosphatemia is a serum phosphate concentration 2.5 mg/dL (0.81 mmol/L). Causes include alcohol use disorder, burns, starvation, and diuretic use. Clinical features include muscle weakness... read more )
Various infections (eg, syphilis Syphilis Syphilis is caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum and is characterized by 3 sequential clinical, symptomatic stages separated by periods of asymptomatic latent infection. Common manifestations... read more , Lyme disease Lyme Disease Lyme disease is a tick-transmitted infection caused by the spirochete Borrelia species. Early symptoms include an erythema migrans rash, which may be followed weeks to months later by neurologic... read more , hepatitis C Hepatitis C, Acute Hepatitis C is caused by an RNA virus that is often parenterally transmitted. It sometimes causes typical symptoms of viral hepatitis, including anorexia, malaise, and jaundice but may be asymptomatic... read more )
Autoimmune-mediated motor neuropathies
Behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia Behavioral (frontal) variant FTD Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) refers to sporadic and hereditary disorders that affect the frontal and temporal lobes, including Pick disease. (See also Overview of Delirium and Dementia and... read more (15 to 20% develop motor neuron disease)
When cranial nerves are affected, a treatable cause is less likely. Upper and lower motor neuron signs plus weakness in facial muscles strongly suggest amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Pearls & Pitfalls
Electrodiagnostic tests should be done to check for evidence of disorders of neuromuscular transmission or demyelination. Such evidence is not present in MNDs; nerve conduction velocities are usually normal until late in the disease. Needle electromyography (EMG) is the most useful test, showing fibrillations, positive waves, fasciculations, and sometimes giant motor units, even in unaffected limbs.
Brain MRI is required. When there is no clinical or EMG evidence of cranial nerve motor weakness, MRI of the cervical spine is indicated to exclude structural lesions that may be compressing the spinal cord.
Laboratory tests are done to check for treatable causes. Tests include complete blood count, electrolytes, creatine kinase, and thyroid function tests.
Serum and urine protein electrophoresis with immunofixation is done to check for a paraprotein that is rarely associated with MNDs. Discovering an underlying paraproteinemia may indicate that the MND is paraneoplastic, and treatment of the paraproteinemia may ameliorate the MND.
Antimyelin-associated glycoprotein (MAG) antibodies are associated with a demyelinating motor neuropathy, which may mimic ALS.
A 24-hour urine collection is done to check for heavy metals in patients who may have been exposed to them.
Lumbar puncture Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap) Lumbar puncture is used to do the following: Evaluate intracranial pressure and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) composition (see table Cerebrospinal Fluid Abnormalities in Various Disorders) Therapeutically... read more may be done to exclude other clinically suspected disorders; if white blood cells or the protein level is elevated, an alternative diagnosis is likely.
The serum Venereal Disease Research Laboratories (VDRL) test, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and measurement of certain antibodies (rheumatoid factor, Lyme titer, HIV, hepatitis C virus, antinuclear [ANA], anti-Hu [to check for anti-Hu paraneoplastic syndrome]) are indicated only if suggested by risk factors or history.
Genetic testing (eg, for superoxide dismutase gene mutation or genetic abnormalities that cause spinal muscular atrophies) and enzyme measurements (eg, hexosaminidase A for Tay-Sachs disease) should not be done unless patients are interested in genetic counseling; disorders detected by these tests have no known specific treatments.
The mainstay of care for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is timely intervention to manage symptoms.
A multidisciplinary team approach helps patients cope with progressive neurologic disability.
No drug offers a substantial clinical benefit for patients with ALS. However, riluzole may provide limited improvement in survival (by 2 to 3 months), and edaravone may slow the decline in function to some degree.
The following drugs may help reduce symptoms:
For spasticity, baclofen
For cramps, quinine or phenytoin
To decrease saliva production, a strong anticholinergic drug (eg, glycopyrrolate, amitriptyline, benztropine, trihexyphenidyl, transdermal hyoscine, atropine)
For pseudobulbar affect, amitriptyline, fluvoxamine, or a combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine
In patients with progressive bulbar palsy, surgery to improve swallowing has had limited success.
Consider motor neuron disease in patients who have diffuse upper and/or lower motor weakness without sensory abnormalities.
Suspect ALS in patients with upper and lower motor neuron signs plus weakness in facial muscles.
Do MRI of the brain and electrodiagnostic and laboratory testing to exclude other disorders.
The mainstay of treatment is supportive measures (eg, multidisciplinary support to help cope with disability; drug treatment for symptoms such as spasticity, cramps, and pseudobulbar affect).
In patients with ALS, riluzole may provide limited survival benefit, and edaravone may slow the decline in function.