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Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS is a rare disease that has now become more familiar to many people because of the on-going Ice Bucket Challenge used to raise funds for research. Beyond the fun involved, awareness about the disease is most important.

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is a rare disease, but it has now become a byword all over the world because of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that has been popularized by social media. Although its origin is obscure, the challenge was conceived to raise funds for research for the disease that affects around 30,000 Americans and still has no cure.


So much has been written and posted online about the Ice Bucket Challenge, which has involved not only ordinary netizens around the world, but even celebrities, royalty, and world leaders, who, together have raised more than $100 million (as of Aug 29,2014) for the cause. But one begins to wonder if awareness regarding ALS, the disease, has significantly increased beyond people's involvement in the fun challenge.

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease (after the famous baseball player who had the disease) is a rare, rapidly disablingcondition that affects the motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord.

It causes the neurons (nerve cells) to degenerate and die, resulting in widespread muscle weakness and eventually, death.

That sounds very scary, especially that scientists have not found out exactly what causes it, how it can be prevented, and how one can be cured.

Fortunately, ALS affects only about one or two people for every 100,000 people in the population. At present, around 30,000 Americans have the disease, and about 5,000 new cases are diagnosed annually. Most patients are aged 40 to 60 years when diagnosed, but older or younger individuals may also be affected.

Possible Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause has not been identified, but scientists have considered familial inheritance, which accounts only for about 10% of patients and genetic mutations. A chemical imbalance is also likely, since patients have been found to have unusually high levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical), which can have toxic effects when it occurs in large amounts. Abnormal autoimmune responses (when the body attacks its own cells) have also been considered, as well as abnormal protein metabolism and accumulation in the nerve cells. Cigarette smoking and chronic exposure to lead have also been linked to the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of ALS

ALS usually starts with subtle and gradual changes in muscle function, affecting one limb at first, then rapidly progresses to involve other limbs and the rest of the body, with a loss of muscle control and death. These signs and symptoms include:

  • muscle twitching

  • cramping

  • muscle stiffness

  • unstable or awkward gait

  • loss of balance, stumbling

  • inability to use fingers for simple tasks such as writing or buttoning shirts

  • slurring of speech

  • difficulty chewing and swallowing, choking on food

  • exaggerated reflexes

  • difficulty holding the head up

  • difficulty maintaining posture

  • difficulty breathing

  • anxiety and depression

Problems with thinking, memory and decision making are uncommon, although personality changes may occur. Generally, patients do not experience loss of bowel or bladder control, tingling, pain, or loss of senses. 

Most patients live for three to five years from the onset of the disease, but one in ten of these patients may survive for up to ten years or more.

Patients usually die from complications such as pneumonia, lung failure, or heart failure.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Time. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Donations Just Topped $100 Million.
  • Take the “No Ice Bucket” Challenge.
  • WebMD. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - Topic Overview.
  • Mayo Clinic. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
  • MedicineNet. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or "Lou Gehrig's Disease").
  • Mindmap by
  • Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures by Pixabay :