What You Need to Know About Lou Gehrig Disease

November 12, 2012

What You Need to Know About Lou Gehrig Disease

Lou Gehrig disease is the American common name for amyotrophic lateral schlerosis or ALS because beloved baseball player Louis Gehrig (1903 – 1941) was forced to retire when diagnosed with the disease and died only two years after being diagnosed. In France and in parts of Canada, ALS is better known as Maladie de Charcot (Charcot’s malady) after the doctor who discovered the disease. In the UK, ALS is better known as motor neuron disease, because of what type of cells are affected.

No matter what it’s called, Lou Gehrig disease is a progressively debilitating disease that will eventually kill anyone who has it. Only one person has managed to live over 40 years after symptoms start, author and theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. There is no cure for Lou Gehrig disease.

About Motor Neurons

Motor neurons are specific cells found in the brain and spinal chord. The cells help control voluntary movements like speech and involuntary movements like breathing. There are two types of motor neuron cells – upper neuron cells and lower neuron cells. Upper neuron cells transmit signals from the brain to the spine, while lower neuron cells transmit signals from the spine to the muscles.

In Lou Gehrig disease, motor neuron cells become damaged. Over time, the cells shrink, atrophy and become useless. As a result, a person stuck in a body without working motor neuron cells becomes completely paralyzed. They usually die because they stop breathing. Some people are able to have a fully active mind right up until their deaths while other people are afflicted with dementia, learning disorders and other neurological problems.

Early Symptoms

The early symptoms of ALS vary from person to person. They usually start off so slightly that they are ignored. The symptoms gradually worsen until they can no longer be ignored. Some commonly recorded earliest symptoms of Lou Gehrig disease include:

  • Stiffness of one or multiple body parts

  • Clumsiness or tripping more often than usual

  • Slurred speech

  • Weakness of the hands or feet

  • Muscle cramps, especially in the feet

Some people develop an uncontrollable facial tick or spasm in another area of the body, but this does not happen to all patients with ALS.

Later Symptoms

As motor neuron cells die and the disease progresses, the patient becomes more and more paralyzed. Just which parts of the body become paralyzed first differs from individual to individual. But eventually the patient can no longer talk, walk, stand up, pick up objects, hold objects, chew, swallow or smile. Patients cannot perform simple tasks such as bathing themselves, brushing their teeth or turning their heads. In the worst cases, patients are unable to breathe unassisted.

Other complications from Lou Gehrig disease includes but are not limited to:

  • Depression.

  • Frontotemporal dementia, which includes memory loss and an inability to make decisions.

  • Gradual body deformity such as becoming hunchbacked or bow-legged.

  • Fecal incontinence, although urinary continence if often maintined right up until the end.

  • Extreme weight loss because muscles waste away and appetite lessens.

  • Chronic upper respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

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