Your muscles move when your brain sends a signal to them through your nerves.
Motor neurons are the nerves that send your muscles the signals to move. Signals travel from the brain through your spinal cord and nerves to your muscles.
Motor neuron diseases are diseases that slowly destroy your motor neurons. When motor neurons stop working, your muscles don’t get the signal to move.
What is ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is the most common type of motor neuron disease. It’s often called Lou Gehrig disease. Lou Gehrig was a famous baseball player in the 1930s who had ALS.
ALS comes on very slowly
Your muscles gradually become weak and stiff
Eventually you won't be able to walk, talk, or swallow
If your breathing muscles are affected, you'll need to go on a ventilator Ventilators Ventilation is the same thing as breathing. It's the movement of air into and out of your lungs. Sometimes your breathing needs to be assisted by a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that... read more (machine to help you breathe)
There isn’t a cure, but medicines can help with symptoms
About half of people with ALS die within 3 years, but some live more than 10 years
There are several other types of motor neuron diseases, including primary lateral sclerosis, progressive bulbar palsy, and progressive muscular atrophy. These all cause weakness and severe disability.
What are the symptoms of ALS?
Early symptoms of ALS include:
Clumsiness and weakness in your hands
Sometimes, weakness in your feet, mouth, or throat
Feeling very tired
Muscle weakness makes it hard to control the expression on your face. You'll start to have trouble swallowing and may choke on liquids or drool. Your voice may not sound right.
Muscles that aren't used start to shrink and tighten up. You may first notice shrinking in the muscles of your hands.
The weakness slowly gets worse and starts to affect other muscles. Eventually, muscles all over your body are affected, except the muscles that move your eyes.
Later on as your weakness gets worse you may:
Need help eating and getting dressed
Have twitching muscles
Need help walking and eventually need to be in a wheelchair
Be unable to swallow without choking and need a feeding tube
Have trouble breathing
Eventually your breathing trouble will get so bad that you'll need to be put on a ventilator (breathing machine).
ALS doesn't affect your mind, so you can still think clearly even when the weakness has gotten bad. However, ALS may affect your emotions so you laugh or cry without reason. Also, it's common to be depressed because of how serious the illness is.
How can doctors tell if I have ALS?
Doctors do tests to diagnose your ALS, such as:
MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer creates a series of detailed pictures. Each picture looks like a slice taken... read more (magnetic resonance imaging—an imaging test that uses a strong magnetic field to create a detailed picture of the inside of your body)
Electromyography Electromyography (EMG) and Nerve Conduction Studies Your brain tells your muscles what to do by sending electrical signals to them. The signals travel down your spinal cord and then through different nerves to your muscles. EMG and nerve conduction... read more (a muscle test that uses small needles to record the electrical activity of your muscle)
Nerve conduction studies Nerve conduction studies Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Imaging tests commonly used to diagnose nervous system (neurologic) disorders... read more (a nerve test that uses small electric shocks to tell how well a nerve conducts signals)
Spinal tap Spinal Tap Spinal fluid is a liquid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Spinal fluid helps cushion your brain if you hit your head or fall. Spinal fluid moves freely around your brain and spinal... read more (a test that uses a sample of fluid taken from your spinal canal)
Genetic tests Genetic Testing Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Imaging tests commonly used to diagnose nervous system (neurologic) disorders... read more (a test that uses a small sample of your blood, skin, or other tissue to look for problems that run in families)
How do doctors treat ALS?
There's no cure for ALS or other motor neuron diseases.
Doctors treat your symptoms with:
Physical therapy Physical Therapy (PT) Physical therapy, a component of rehabilitation, involves exercising and manipulating the body with an emphasis on the back, upper arms, and legs. It can improve joint and muscle function, helping... read more to keep your joints flexible and slow muscle wasting
Occupational therapy Occupational Therapy (OT) Occupational therapy, a component of rehabilitation, is intended to enhance a person's ability to do basic self-care activities, useful work, and leisure activities. These activities include... read more to prevent choking while eating, or a feeding tube into your stomach if you can no longer swallow
Medicines to help with muscle twitches or cramps
Medicine to help with emotional outbursts or depression
Medicine to help with drooling
Medicine for pain
A ventilator (breathing machine) if you're too weak to breathe on your own
Even with feeding tubes and ventilators, about half of people with ALS die within about 3 years. However, some people live over 10 years and very rarely 30 or more.
If you have ALS or one of the other dangerous motor neuron diseases, you may want to make an advance directive Advance Directives Health care advance directives are legal documents that communicate a person’s wishes about health care decisions in the event the person becomes incapable of making health care decisions. There... read more . An advance directive is a plan to let your loved ones and doctors know what kinds of medical care you want at the end of your life.