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Posted Mar 26 2010 12:00am


          I have a friend and past co-worker that just went to Rochester, Mn., and she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Her symptoms were difficulty speaking and weakness in the legs and arms.  It was almost as though she had been drugged.  Lou Gehrig’s disease may take several months to know for sure that someone has the disorder.  It can cause symptoms similar to other diseases that affect the nerves and muscles, like Parkinson’s disease or a stroke.  The disease is a disorder that is also referred to as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.  Amyotrophic comes from the Greek language.  ”A” means no or negative.  “Myo” refers to muscle, and “trophic” means nourishment: “No muscle nourishment”.  ALS is a motor neuron disease affecting the nerve cells that control the muscles we move voluntarily.  In this disease, nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, known as motor neurons, gradually degenerate, causing the muscles under their control to weaken and waste away.  It is called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famed New York Yankee slugger whose death in 1941 was caused by the disorder.    

          Early symptoms vary with each individual, but they usually include tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and twitches and involuntary periods of laughing or crying.  With the hands and feet affected first, it causes difficulty in walking or using the hands for the activities of daily living, such as dressing, washing and buttoning clothes.  ALS victims eventually become disabled, have difficulty speaking and swallowing, and may succumb to infections, particularly pneumonia.  While the disease paralyzes the “voluntary” muscles, patients remain alert and are able to think clearly, so that they can find ways to communicate without speech.  The five senses are unaffected, and most patients maintain control over their bowels and bladder.  For some patients, using these remaining abilities can be the springboard to cope with the disease.

          Although this disease can strike anyone, it is extremely rare in kids.  Men and women are both at equal risk for the disorder.  According to the ALS Association, most people who develop Lou Gehrig’s disease are adults between 40 and 70.  Only 2 out of every 100,000 people will get the disease each year.  Because it is not contagious, you can’t catch ALS from someone who has the disease.  Among ALS cases in the United States, 5% to 10% are hereditary, which means the disease runs in certain families.  This is called familial ALS.  At least 90% of cases are not inherited; this is called sporadic ALS.  The tests for diagnosis include an EMG (electromyogram), X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a spinal tap, and blood and urine evaluations.  Sometimes a muscle or nerve biopsy is needed.  Examining this tissue can help the doctor figure out what’s making someone sick.

          There is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, but medicines can control symptoms, such as muscle cramping and difficulty swallowing, and other drugs can slow the development of the disease.  Physical therapy can help people with ALS cope with muscle loss and breathing problems.  Special equipment is also provided when it becomes necessary.  For instance, a power wheelchair can enable a paralyzed person with ALS to get around.  A  ventilator can help someone breathe.  In addition, a nurse or other health assistant may come to the person’s home to provide care that the family cannot handle alone.  It’s normal for family members to feel upset, overwhelmed, and sad if a loved one has ALS. Counseling, as well as support from other family members and friends, can make it easier to deal with the challenges they face.  According to the ALS Association, about half of all people with ALS live at least 3 years after they find out they have the disease, and 20% (or 1 in 5) live 5 years or more.  As many as 10% will survive more than 10 years.

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