What Are Early Warning Signs of ALS?

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By: Daniel Larriviere, MD, JD, FAAN

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a real mouthful; most people know it by its more common names: ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting more than 20,000 people in the U.S. with over 6,000 new cases diagnosed every year, according to the ALS Association.

Currently, there is no cure for ALS and those affected have a survival rate of three to five years. Most people who develop ALS are between the ages of 40 – 60, but the disease can occur in persons in their 20s as well. That’s why knowing the potential warning signs of ALS is your best chance for an early diagnosis. This allows for early treatment which can slow the disease’s progress and reduce discomfort.

Early ALS signs include:

  • Muscle weakness

    • Due to the nature of the disease, those with ALS experience a loss of muscle strength making it difficult to hold items such as pens or cups.
  • Impaired speech and trouble projecting the voice

    • Muscle atrophy may make it difficult for people with ALS to make clear sounds, breath in sufficient air to speak loudly, control the quality of the sound of their voice or maintain a natural rhythm of speech.
  • Abnormal fatigue

    • The degenerative nature of ALS causes patients to experience lack of energy, general tiredness and even extreme exhaustion.
  • Difficulty walking

    • Stumbling and tripping is often an early symptom of ALS.
  • Difficulty swallowing

    • ALS patients may find it hard to chew, remove food from the utensil and/or have food stick to the roof of the mouth. They may also experience choking on food and liquids and have difficulty coordinating breathing and swallowing.
  • Uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying

    • Pseudo bulbar affect (PBA) is not an uncommon condition for people with ALS to have. PBA is recognized by involuntary, sudden, and frequent episodes of laughing and/or crying far in excess of the situation which may have provoked it.
  • Twitching and cramping of muscles, especially those in the hands and feet

    • Twitching occurs when a nerve involuntarily fires on a muscle and the result is a visible twitch. While not necessarily painful, continuous twitching can be irritating.

Early signs of ALS can vary from person-to-person. Some may experience impaired speech while others find it difficult to lift a coffee mug. When experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, be sure to make an appointment with your doctor.

For more information about ALS or to make an appointment, visit www.ochsner.org/als or call 504-842-0113.