What is ALS?

Approximately 3,000 Canadians are currently living with ALS.

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a condition that gradually causes the body to become paralyzed when the brain loses its ability to communicate with the muscles in our body.

The brain contains millions of nerve cells known as motor neurons, and these motor neurons serve as internal wiring for our body that allow us to move. With ALS, these motor neurons eventually break down and die, resulting in muscle weakness – and paralysis. As the disease progresses, you can also lose the ability to talk, eat, swallow, walk, and even breathe.

There are two types of ALS: Sporadic and Familial.

Sporadic ALS, which consists of approximately 90 to 95 percent of all ALS cases, and is the most common form of ALS to be diagnosed with. Sporadic ALS can affect anyone regardless of their age, ethnicity or gender, though it typically affects individuals between 40 and 50 years of age. Familial ALS is less common and accounts for just 5 to 10 percent of ALS cases, and is inherited from one or both parents. Individuals who are carriers of familial ALS have a 50% chance of passing the disease onto their child.

Symptoms of ALS vary from person-to-person. Potential early signs and symptoms of ALS include slurred speech, tripping or dropping things, decreased muscle tone, muscle cramping, decreased or increased reflexes, trouble swallowing, weakness and fatigue. Pain, while not a common symptom of ALS, can also be experienced. As ALS progresses, these symptoms will worsen. You may also have trouble forming words, cough or choke when eating or drinking, and have trouble breathing. As many as 30 to 50 percent of those with ALS will also develop cognitive changes, such as altered mood or changes in their personality, how they think, and other unusual behaviours.

Because symptoms of ALS can mimic other diseases – especially in an early stage, diagnosing ALS, at least initially, can be difficult. Blood and urinalysis’, nerve conduction and muscle function tests, as well as magnetic resonance imaging can all be helpful in diagnosing ALS.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with ALS, click here for resources and information on how to cope with such a diagnosis. You can also find more information by following Dr. Ali Ghahary on Instagram.