MoreGehrig: Extensive Gehrig Info Source
More About ALS
His Career
His Disease
His Family/Personal Life
In His Own Words
His Living Legacy
Little-Known Gehrig Facts
Library o' Gehrig
Shop MoreGehrig
The Memorial Wall
Fan's Tour of Yankee Stadium
Personal Gehrig Stories
Valuable Links
Questions and Answers
MoreGehrig GuestMap

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease that has a lot of research poured into it, but one that evades even the most studious of medical professionals. Very little is known of it. What is known of it can basically be explained in the translation of its name. "Amyotrophic" means "without muscle nourishment"; the muscles are not receiving signals from the nervous system to move, they are not receiving nourishment. "Lateral" means "to the side"; the side of the spinal cord is the initial site of damage in an ALS victim's body. "Sclerosis," or "hardened," refers to the hardening of the spinal cord as a result of the damage inflicted by ALS.

Except for the 5%-10% of cases that involve heredity, no cause of ALS has been found. Without an absolute cause, it's hard to find a cure (kind of like with cancer).

ALS is a degenerative disease, it deteriorates the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cords. Motor neurons are the little messengers sent out by the nervous system to tell the muscles to move. ALS attacks these motor neurons, causing the victim to lose control of his muscles. Every year in America 1-2 people per 100,000 develop ALS; that figures out to about 5,000 new victims per year. Once a person has been diagnosed with ALS, they usually are given a life expectancy of 3-6 years. The disease can strike anyone at any age, but it most often it strikes in the middle-aged and elderly, more commonly in men.

It's a quirky disease, the truth be told; the quirkiness can be both fascinating and frustrating to victims and their doctors. For instance, victims cognitive and imaginative brain function is left intact. Though the victim eventually cannot talk or move, they can still think, remember, compute and daydream - and they are very aware of how "trapped" they are in their own bodies. Freaky. Therefore depression is a common side effect of ALS.

ALS victims also retain all 5 senses, including touch. Other forms of sclerosis involve numbness or tingling, but ALS does not. As with other diseases, victims' bodies react to and tolerate ALS in different ways. Some ALS victims do not make it to the 3-year mark after diagnosis while a small number of victims live for decades (Stephen Hawking, well-known physicist/author, is perhaps the most incredible example of victim survival; he has lived with ALS since the 1960s). Involuntary muscles, such as the heart and bowels, are not directly affected by ALS, although they are indirectly affected by various complications involved with ALS. The only pain a victim usually feels is muscle stiffness and cramping as a result of not moving.

In Lou Gehrig's case, a doctor simply had to look at him to tell he had ALS because the doctor's mother died from the disease. Other doctors aren't so fortunate to arrive at the difficult diagnosis of ALS quite so easily. It is a particularly challenging disease to identify. The ALS diagnosis procedure is fundamentally a process of elimination. Because its symptoms (loss of coordination, difficulty talking, persistent weakness in an appendage) match those of many other diseases, including muscular dystrophy, the diagnosis process can be rather drawn out, the victim going through test after test.

Though there are a number of treatments for ALS, none of them has been shown to stop the progression of ALS. The best victims can hope for at this point is a regiment of drugs and devices that help in coping with the symptoms of ALS a bit easier.

Thanks to a drug called Rilutex, muscle function sticks around a little longer in a victim's body, and has been shown to extend life expectancy about 3 months. Baclofen eases muscle stiffness. To help with the inevitable weight loss, many victims take branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) nutritional supplements. Phenytoin eases cramps. Tricyclic antidepressants cut down the amount of involuntary drooling involved with ALS.

New hope came recently when researchers reported on a new form of treatment referred to "ALS cocktail." The cocktail combines minocycline (an antibiotic used to treat several brain diseases) with creatine (a dietary supplement also used to treat brain diseases). In test mice genetically programmed to develop ALS, the ones given the cocktail lived 25% longer than those who were not. This discovery was a step toward better lives for ALS victims - a small, shaky step, but still a progression.



  • In America, the common nickname for ALS is "Lou Gehrigs disease." In other parts of the world, the common name for the disease is "motor neuron diseas" (leave it to non-Americans to use a more aptly descriptive nickname)
  • ALS was nicknamed "Lou Gehrig's Disease" because Lou Gehrig was the first famous person to be publicly diagnosed with the disease.
  • Eleanor Gehrig, Lou's wife, was one of the leading activist for ALS research for years after his death; today, one of the leading activists is pitcher Curt Schilling.

Written by S. Kaden