Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis history and symptoms

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Mohamadmostafa Jahansouz M.D.[2]

Overview

The onset of ALS may be so subtle that the symptoms are frequently overlooked. The earliest symptoms are obvious weakness and/or muscle atrophy. This is followed by twitching, cramping, or stiffness of affected muscles; muscle weakness affecting an arm or a leg; and/or slurred and nasal speech. The twitching, cramping, etc. associated with ALS is a result of the dying muscle, therefore these symptoms without clinical weakness or atrophy of affected muscle is likely not ALS.

General Symptoms

The twitching, cramping, etc. associated with ALS is a result of the dying muscle, therefore these symptoms without clinical weakness or atrophy of affected muscle is likely not ALS.

Initial Symptoms

The onset of ALS may be so subtle that the symptoms are frequently overlooked. The earliest symptoms are obvious weakness and/or muscle atrophy. This is followed by twitching, cramping, or stiffness of affected muscles; muscle weakness affecting an arm or a leg; and/or slurred and nasal speech. The twitching, cramping, etc. associated with ALS is a result of the dying muscle, therefore these symptoms without clinical weakness or atrophy of affected muscle is likely not ALS.

The parts of the body affected by early symptoms of ALS depend on which motor neurons in the body are damaged first. About 75% of people experience "limb onset" ALS. In some of these cases, symptoms initially affect one of the legs, and patients experience awkwardness when walking or running or they notice that they are tripping or stumbling more often. Other limb onset patients first see the effects of the disease on a hand or arm as they experience difficulty with simple tasks requiring manual dexterity such as buttoning a shirt, writing, or turning a key in a lock. Occasionally the symptoms remain confined to one limb; this is known as monomelic amyotrophy.

About 25% of cases are "bulbar onset" ALS. These patients first notice difficulty speaking clearly. Speech becomes garbled and slurred. Nasality and loss of volume are frequently the first symptoms. Difficulty swallowing, and loss of tongue mobility follow. Eventually total loss of speech and the inability to protect the airway when swallowing are experienced.

Regardless of the part of the body first affected by the disease, muscle weakness and atrophy spread to other parts of the body as the disease progresses. Patients experience increasing difficulty moving, swallowing (dysphagia), and speaking or forming words (dysarthria). Symptoms of upper motor neuron involvement include tight and stiff muscles (spasticity) and exaggerated reflexes (hyperreflexia) including an overactive gag reflex. An abnormal reflex commonly called Babinski's sign (the large toe extends upward as the sole of the foot is stimulated) also indicates upper motor neuron damage. Symptoms of lower motor neuron degeneration include muscle weakness and atrophy, muscle cramps, and fleeting twitches of muscles that can be seen under the skin (fasciculations). Around 15–45% of patients experience pseudobulbar affect, also known as "emotional lability", which consists of uncontrollable laughter, crying or smiling, attributable to degeneration of bulbar upper motor neurons resulting in exaggeration of motor expressions of emotion.

To be diagnosed with ALS, patients must have signs and symptoms of both upper and lower motor neuron damage that cannot be attributed to other causes.

Emerging Symptoms

Although the sequence of emerging symptoms and the rate of disease progression vary from person to person, eventually patients will not be able to stand or walk, get in or out of bed on their own, or use their hands and arms. Difficulty swallowing and chewing impair the patient's ability to eat normally and increase the risk of choking. Maintaining weight will then become a problem. Because the disease usually does not affect cognitive abilities, patients are aware of their progressive loss of function and may become anxious and depressed. A small percentage of patients go on to develop frontotemporal dementia characterized by profound personality changes; this is more common among those with a family history of dementia. A larger proportion of patients experience mild problems with word-generation, attention, or decision-making. Cognitive function may be affected as part of the disease process or could be related to poor breathing at night (nocturnal hypoventilation). Health care professionals need to explain the course of the disease and describe available treatment options so that patients can make informed decisions in advance.

As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (rib cage) weaken, forced vital capacity and inspiratory pressure diminish. In bulbar onset ALS, this may occur before significant limb weakness is apparent. Bilevel positive pressure ventilation (frequently referred to by the tradename BiPAP) is frequently used to support breathing, first at night, and later during the daytime as well. It is recommended that long before BiPAP becomes insufficient, patients (with the eventual help of their families) must decide whether to have a tracheostomy and long term mechanical ventilation. Most patients do not elect this route, and instead choose palliative hospice care at this point. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or pneumonia, not the disease itself.

ALS predominantly affects the motor neurons, and in the majority of cases the disease does not impair a patient's mind, personality, intelligence, or memory. Nor does it affect a person's ability to see, smell, taste, hear, or feel touch. Control of eye muscles is the most preserved function, although some patients with an extremely long duration of disease (20+ years) may lose eye control too. Unlike multiple sclerosis, bladder and bowel control are usually preserved in ALS, although as a result of immobility and diet changes, intestinal problems such as constipation can require intensive management.

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