What is ALS?


ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and is commonly and eponymously known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player who publicly fought ALS until his death in June 2, 1941. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis exists as a progressive neurodegenerative disease that works by destroying the brains’ muscle-firing neurons, slowly winnowing down the body’s ability to perform motor functions, basic or advanced- neurons in the brain fire, sending signals to the spinal cord, which acts as the body’s hub for muscle control and movement. The spinal cord then sends signals to the applicable portion of the body, and a movement is performed. Lou Gehrig’s disease functions by eating away at those motor neurons in the brain. Soon, the body loses its ability to send impulses to the muscles, eventually resulting in paralysis for the whole nervous system.

When one considers muscle growth, one thinks of working out, lifting weights, eating adequate protein. But muscle movement invokes much more basic imagery: lifting boxes, carrying books, taking out the trash, writing a paper, and so forth; simple functions that your body performs because neurons in your brain tell your spine to tell your fingers to clinch or your feet to walk. ALS cripples the body’s ability to communicate with itself, meaning that even the most basic motor functions are stripped away, and without constant use, muscle groups start to thin out.

This process would appear, visually, like the weightlifters at the gym beginning to waste away until they looked like starving third world children, or the process of a healthy, green banana shriveling up. If the body doesn’t think that muscle groups are being used, or doesn’t know that they can’t receive messages, it gets bored; the muscles themselves get lazy. They become like two lovers in a bad relationship: little to no communication or involvement from one party makes the other party lose interest and become lazy and depressed. They want to work it out, but they can’t seem to ever talk to each other. This is the brain not talking to the muscles. The brain really wants to send neurons to the spine to move muscles, but it simply can’t. And the body feels neglected and thinks the brain has stopped caring, so it becomes sad and weak. Only in this case, the brain has a progressive disease eating away at it’s ability to produce those neurons.

The Greek from which the diseases name, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is derived, translates literally into, “no muscle nourishment.” “A” (as in atypical or abiotic), means “no” or “negative,” “myo” translates into “muscle,” and “tropic” indicates the presence of nutrition—which is also the derivation for the word “atrophy,” which refers to a muscle thinning because it lacks nourishment, activity, or use; essentially, it stops growing—all together, the word Amyotrophic means, “the negative presence of muscle nourishment.”

Unfortunately, along with progressive degenerative diseases like cancer, HIV and AIDS, and lupus, ALS cannot be “cured,” so to speak. There are rare cases where the diseases progress slows dramatically, or halts altogether. There are other cases where ALS progresses at a rate slow enough to extend the patients life considerably, with the presence of tools and devices to manage the symptoms and improve mobility. Like these other aggressive degenerative diseases, no two experiences are the same, and no two patients will react the same to preventative treatments geared towards slowing the onset of the disease.

There is only one drug that currently has FDA approval, and is known to relax the progress of the disease: riluzole. This drug provides a feeling of hope to those affected with and battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, helping to stretch their independence and mobility as far as possible.

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