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ALS: Everything You Need to Know

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Many of us have heard of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis through social media during the Ice Bucket Challenge last year. But most people still do not know what it is. Here is everything that you need to know about ALS.

What is ALS?

ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a disease that affects the nerve cells found in the brain and spinal cord. It is most commonly known in South Africa as Motor Neuron Disease (MND), but ALS is only a form of MND. The nerve cells that are affected by the disease are called motor neurons. These nerves control muscle power and movement in our limbs and respiratory system.

ALS is a progressively fatal disease. This means that over time it will affect your motor neurons more and more and eventually, leading to a total paralysis of any voluntary movement.

What are its symptoms?

ALS is a very individualistic disease in that it’s symptoms occur in a variety of ways from person to person as well as how it progresses. It usually causes weakness of speech muscles or those of the limbs. You may feel lameness in your hands, arms and legs that keeps you from easily lifting objects or walking as comfortably and effortlessly as before. There may be twitching or cramping of the limbs as well. ALS affects voluntary muscles such as arms, hands, feet and legs, so most of its symptoms will be found here. Most people do not realise that breathing is also voluntary so, the disease may result in shortness of breath or impaired swallowing.

Who gets ALS?

Many people may think of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as an “old people’s” illness, but it can affect people in their 30s and 20s as well. Peter Frates, a baseball player credited for starting the Ice Bucket Challenge was 28 when he was diagnosed with ALS. People have a higher chance of developing ALS at a younger age when they have relatives with the disease.

About 90% of people with ALS are the only ones in their families that have been diagnosed. On the other hand, when it runs in the family, it will more often than not affect every generation. There are currently 297 people living with ALS in South Africa. Studies have not been able to accurately determine whether the disease is genetically or environmentally induced, so it has the potential to affect anyone.

Medication and cure

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has no cure. Riluzole is an effective medication to treat ALS. It acts as an anti-glutamate by suppressing excess glutamate in the brain and spinal fluids of those diagnosed with the degenerative disease. This medicine has been able to slow down the disease and prolong the life. Most people with ALS live as long as two to five years once diagnosed, but there are some that live quality live well beyond five years.

There is medication to ease the symptoms the illness such as stiffness and cramping, which improves quality of life. Unfortunately, caring for someone with ALS can become more expensive as it progresses because they may need equipment to move around, eat, and breathe as well as a live-in healthcare professional.

ALS is a challenging disease that can affect anyone. Although it does not affect a large part of the population, it is important to know what it is all about.

Written by Noma Mtebele

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