Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Affected with ALS: Stephen Hawking (Photo: NSA)
Affected with ALS: Stephen Hawking (Photo: NSA)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a chronic and degenerative illness of the central nervous system. It affects mostly people aged between 50 and 70 years old.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a serious, chronic degenerative illness of the central and peripheral nervous system.

In this process, the only part of the nervous system that is affected is the one responsible for the arbitrary control of the skeletal muscles, also called the motoric nervous system.

ALS is not MS

ALS is not to be confounded with multiple sclerosis (MS). These are two very distinct illnesses that are treated in very different ways.
ALS was described for the first time in 1869 by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris. Therefore it is also often named "maladie de Charcot". It is also referred to as motor neurone disease (MND) or as Lou Gehrig's disease.

ALS is characterized by damaged motoric nervous cells in the spinal cord and in the brain. Consequences include muscular weakness, muscular atrophy as well as muscle stiffness.

At an advanced stage of the illness, patients are barely or no longer able to execute movements. In most cases, the first symptoms appear in the upper or lower extremities. Patients notice a loss of the fine motor skills, or may experience awkwardness when walking. Speech or swallowing difficulties are rarely among the first symptoms.

Chronic evolution of the disease

A typical characteristic of the illness is its propensity to affect neighbouring muscle areas. This concerns the neighbouring parts of the body as well as the ones lying on the opposite side. The symptoms spread at various speeds. In a more advanced stage, ALS also affects the breathing muscles, which as a result affects the oxygen supply.

The rate at which the disease evolves is very different from one patient to the other. However, the life expectancy of all people affected by the disease is significantly shorter as otherwise.

Text: Sandra Schadek
Translation: MyH - 08/2014
Bild: NASA / wikimedia.org

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