To learn more about ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as ALS, is a relatively unknown degenerative disorder. Here is some information on ALS.

What is ALS?

You have probably already heard of ALS, possibly under another name. Indeed, this disease has several names: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, motoneuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was named in honour of a famous American baseball player who died from the disease in the 1940s.  ALS was described for the first time in 1874 by a French neurologist named Jean-Martin Charcot. In France, the disease is also known as Charcot’s disease.

ALS is a neuromuscular disease that is characterized by the deterioration of certain nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This neurological impairment progressively hinders the brain’s ability to control voluntary muscular movements. This eventually leads to paralysis and muscle atrophy (or wasting).

Today, in Canada, ALS affects between 2500 and 3000 people over the age of 18. It can strike anyone at any age, most often between 40 and 70 years old. It is not contagious, so it cannot be transmitted from one person to another. However, inherited forms of the disease exist and are found in about 5 to 10% of cases.

What are the causes of the disease?

ALS is a complex disease for which the exact causes are not yet known. As mentioned earlier, a genetic predisposition to the disease exists in some cases. Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the destruction of the nerve cells. For example, exposure to some environmental factors such as heavy metals or free radicals. However, the causes of the disease are still unknown.

What are the signs and symptoms of ALS?

There is more than one variant of ALS. The disease doesn’t initially affect the same areas of the body for everyone. It may first affect the nerves that control the muscles of upper limbs in some cases, and in other instances, the lower limbs, throat or chest are affected. The disease may go unnoticed at first or be confused with other health problems or signs of aging. Symptoms of the disease include:

  • fatigue;
  • muscle weakness;
  • weight loss;
  • muscle stiffness;
  • decreased muscle tone;
  • cramps;
  • muscle twitching;
  • difficulty swallowing;
  • difficulty articulating speech.

How does the disease evolve?

As the disease evolves, a greater number of muscles and areas of the body are affected. Paralysis progresses and the muscles slowly weaken. The disease will also affect the respiratory muscles. However, taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing remain unimpaired. The order in which the muscles will be affected and the speed at which the disease progresses varies from one person to another.

Do treatments exist?

Our understanding of the disease has evolved greatly in recent years and a lot of research is being done to help people with ALS. Researchers are trying to find a treatment to slow down the disease. However, unfortunately, there is no treatment to cure the disease at this time. Available treatments mostly aim to ensure the comfort of individuals affected by the illness to improve their quality of life and that of their loved ones. Only one drug is presently being used to slow down the disease’s progression, but its effects are modest.

What are the available resources?

Several clinics specialized in care for individuals affected by ALS and their loved ones exist in Canada. Various health professionals work together to improve quality of life of the people affected by ALS and that of their loved ones. ALS Canada and ALS Society of Quebec also offer several support, orientation and front line services. If you or a loved one is affected by ALS:

  • Find out as much as you can about the disease and available care.
  • Surround yourself with people whom you can share your feelings and emotions with. It’s important to develop a support network.
  • Ask for help. There are clinics and community services available that can help you get through each stage of the disease.

Living with ALS is certainly a major challenge, but the future holds promise for everyone waiting for the discovery of a treatment. Until then, several health professionals, organizations and people affected by the disease are there to offer their help and support. 

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To learn more about ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as ALS, is a relatively unknown degenerative disorder. Here is some information on ALS.
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