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Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a rapidly progressing disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.

It is part of a group of diseases known as motor neuron disease, which is characterized by the degeneration and death of motor neuron cells.

ALS symptoms include the following:

  • Muscle twitching (known as fasciculation)
  • Muscle cramps
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or difficulty breathing (dyspnea
  • Muscle weakness, usually affecting one arm or leg first
  • Speech problems, such as slurred or abnormal speech patterns

ALS: what you should know

  • There is currently no cure for ALS. As the disease progresses, patients lose the ability to move, swallow or breathe on their own.
  • Although mental abilities are typically not affected, many patients experience depression or anxiety due to their rapid physical degeneration.
  • Because of the prognosis of ALS, obtaining an accurate diagnosis is critical. Some ALS symptoms can instead be caused by other conditions, including neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, a spinal tumor or herniated disc.

How can I get help for ALS?

  • If you have any of the above symptoms, contact your primary care doctor, especially if you have a family history of ALS.
  • If your primary care doctor recommends further testing, neuromuscular experts at Rush can help you obtain an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment. They also welcome people seeking second opinions for ALS.
  • Diagnostic tests for ALS may include the following:

Care for ALS at Rush

Once you have a diagnosis, neuromuscular experts at Rush will work with you to design an individualized treatment plan. The goal of treatment is to help with your quality of life. Your plan may include some of the following:

  • Medical therapy: This may include use of riluzole, which is believed to reduce damage to the motor neurons. Your doctors may also prescribe medications to address the following:
    • ALS symptoms, such as muscle cramps
    • Other conditions that may develop as ALS progresses, like sleep problems, depression or anxiety
  • Physical and occupational therapy: Rehab specialists at Rush can help you learn exercises to strengthen affected muscles without overworking them. They can also help you learn stretching techniques to address muscle spasticity. This is when your muscles contract, spasm or become stiff uncontrollably.
  • Speech therapy: Speech therapists at Rush can help you address problems with your speech and swallowing.
  • Nutritional counseling: Dieticians at Rush can recommend ways to maintain your dietary needs as swallowing becomes more difficult.
  • Mobility assistance: Orthotists can help fit you if a brace is needed for support. Mobility specialists can guide you on the best assistance walking device for your needs, whether a wheelchair, cane or walker.
  • Respiratory support: As the disease progresses, your doctors may recommend you have a pulmonary function test for your breathing. If the test shows breathing difficulties, your doctors may recommend you see a pulmonologist at Rush for additional respiratory support. 
  • Emotional support: Your ALS team at Rush includes a nurse and a social worker who is available for counseling or can refer you for additional counseling. In addition, a nurse and social worker hold a monthly ALS support group.

Why choose Rush for ALS care

  • Neuromuscular physicians have conducted thousands of muscle and nerve tests on adults, children and infants. As a result, they can detect subtle abnormalities in muscles and nerves and arrive at a diagnosis with great accuracy.
  • Because of the complexity of ALS, neuromuscular physicians collaborate with other specialists at Rush to help you maintain quality of life for as long as possible. These specialists include many of the following:
  • Rush is an affiliate of the Greater Chicago Chapter of the ALS Association. Affiliate centers provide evidence-based, multidisciplinary ALS care, services and resources in a supportive atmosphere with an emphasis on hope and quality of life. They also meet the ALS Association's clinical care and treatment standards, which are based on the American Academy of Neurology Practice Parameters.

Departments and programs that treat this condition