Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS)

What is Lou Gehrig's Disease?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more often called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive degenerative neurological condition that causes the wasting away of muscle. ALS affects the motor neurons in your brain and spinal cord, which send signals to your muscles. Without them, you lose voluntary movement and, as the disease progresses, you may lose your ability to eat, speak and breathe. There are two types of ALS, according to the ALS Association:

  • Sporadic, the most common type, which may affect anyone
  • Familial, which is inherited

Symptoms and Diagnosis of ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease

Symptoms of ALS often vary from person to person, but generally appear gradually. Common symptoms may include these, according to the ALS Association:

  • Progressive weakness and fatigue in muscles
  • Stumbling while walking
  • Difficulty holding things
  • Slurring of speech
  • Uncontrollable laughing or crying

Diagnosis of ALS is difficult, and there’s no sure-fire test. Diagnosis is usually made reductively, with a clinical exam and a series of diagnostic tests designed to rule out other possible causes. The tests may include:

  • Electromyography
  • Nerve conduction studies
  • Lumbar puncture
  • X-rays and MRI scans

Treatment of ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease

The rate of progression of ALS may also vary, as does survival time. There’s no cure for ALS, but a combination of medication and therapy may help manage your symptoms and slow the rate of progression.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease can vary greatly, as can the progression of the condition. Symptoms can include:


  • Gradual, painless but progressive muscle weakness
  • Frequent tripping    
  • Inability to hold onto things
  • Weakness in the arms and legs
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle cramps and twitching
  • Swallowing difficulty

Lou Gehrig’s Disease Diagnosis

To determine if someone has Lou Gehrig’s disease, we use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:


Blood and urine tests: These tests can eliminate other causes of symptoms.


Cerebrospinal fluid test: During this test, the spine is numbed and a needle is injected to collect a small sample of spinal fluid. The spinal fluid can be tested for biomarkers that indicate the likelihood of Lou Gehrig’s disease.


Electromyography (EMG): In this test, a thin needle electrode is inserted through the skin into different muscles to test for muscle abnormality.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to produce pictures of the brain and spinal cord, to rule out any other conditions.


Nerve Conduction Studies (NCS): In this test, electrodes are placed on the skin over certain muscles to test how effective the nerves are at sending signals to muscles.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease Causes

In Lou Gehrig’s disease, the nerve cells that control muscle movement gradually die, weakening muscles and eventually leaving them unable to work. In most cases, the cause of the disease is unknown. A small percentage of people inherit the disease.

Risk Factors

Risk factors that could contribute to Lou Gehrig’s disease include:


Age: Lou Gehrig’s disease usually occurs in people between ages 40 and 70.


Being male: In cases diagnosed before age 65, more men than women have the condition.


Heredity: About 10 percent of cases are inherited.


People with Lou Gehrig’s disease can consider genetic testing and family planning options in order to not pass the gene along to their children.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease Prognosis

There is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Treatment focuses on slowing the progression of symptoms, preserving and maintaining mobility, function and nutrition, and preventing unnecessary complications.

Treatment and Recovery

Although Lou Gehrig’s disease can’t be cured yet, medications can help treat the symptoms and:


  • Alleviate depression and sleeplessness
  • Calm agitation
  • Lessen muscle cramping and spasticity
  • Treat pain

Certain therapies can also help the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease. These therapies include:

  • Breathing therapy
  • Physical therapy to address pain, balance and mobility
  • Braces and mobility equipment to help with independence
  • Occupational therapy to help with hand and arm weakness
  • Speech therapy to help with communication and swallowing
  • Psychological support to help with emotional symptoms
  • A tracheostomy procedure to manage breathing problem 
  • A feeding tube procedure to maintain nutrition


Over time, Lou Gehrig’s disease causes complications with all aspects of muscle movement. This affects:


Nutrition: Many people with Lou Gehrig’s disease eventually have difficulty chewing and swallowing, leading them to reduce or stop eating and drinking.


Pneumonia: Difficulty with chewing and swallowing can increase the chances of a person choking on their food or breathing it into their lungs, which can affect breathing and cause pneumonia.


Communication: The loss of the ability to speak clearly can make it difficult for a person to communicate when feeling pain, report symptoms of other illnesses or describe medication side effects.


Balance: Because Lou Gehrig’s disease can affect balance, falls are more likely, which can lead to serious injury. As the disease progresses, patients will gradually become more disabled and require increased help with mobility and normal daily activities.

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