What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a-mi-o-TROE-fik LAT-ur-ul skluh-ROE-sis) is a progressive nervous system disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord which causes muscle weakness and impacts physical ability. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is also called Lou Gehrig's disease, named after the famous baseball player who was first diagnosed with it.


ALS Center for Excellence Patient and Tech Hands Photo

Early signs and symptoms of ALS may include:

  • Difficulty walking, tripping, lifting, dropping things
  • Weakness or muscle cramps or twitching in your legs, feet or ankles
  • Weakness or muscle cramps or twitching in arms or hands, difficulty using the hands
  • Slurring of speech or ‘thick’ sounding speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty holding your head up or maintaining good posture
  • Difficulty breathing

Hands and feet may be affected first which causes difficulty in managing everyday activities such as dressing and washing. If legs are affected first it can lead to difficulty walking or falls. As the disease spreads, it will eventually affect speech, swallowing, chewing and breathing. Muscles become progressively weaker. ALS does not usually affect bowel or bladder control or your senses. It may affect your ability to think and make decisions.

Who is at risk for ALS?

Risk factors for ALS include:

  • Gender – Slightly more men than women develop ALS.
  • Age – ALS symptoms most commonly begin in mid-life between the ages of 40 and 70 (average age is 55)
  • Heredity – Most people who have a parent with ALS have a 50% chance of developing ALS. Approximately five to ten percent of ALS patients inherited the disease.

Because the genetic risk of acquiring ALS is small, it is possible that some people with ALS acquired the disease through certain environmental factors. Established environmental factors that may contribute to risk of ALS include military service and smoking. Other risk factors are being explored.