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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Why Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a Growing Health Problem


Imagine what you would feel if you want to go outside to enjoy a beautiful summer day but your feet refuse to take you there. Imagine wanting to pinch the cheeks of your cute nephew but your arms lay limp beside you. You cannot move them even if you want to. That’s what it feels like to live with a condition known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, approximately 30,000 people in the United States are living with ALS. Although the disease usually develops between ages 40 and 70, there are also reported cases of ALS in individuals who are in their 20s and 30s.

Understanding the Nature of ALS

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is not a communicable disease. It is a group of progressive neurologic diseases affecting the neurons (nerve cells) that control the voluntary movement of your muscles. Your voluntary muscles are the ones that allow you to move, eat, talk, and walk. They also affect your breathing.

In order for you to move, your brain sends signals to your motor neurons (the ones responsible for voluntary movement) to stimulate your voluntary muscles to move. In ALS, your motor neurons slowly deteriorate and die. This cuts off the connection and path of communication between your brain and your voluntary muscles. Without this connection, your muscles will no longer be able to execute what your brain wants them to do because they cannot receive the impulse (the command or the message) anymore.

Although the progression of the disease varies from person to person, a majority of patients with ALS die due to respiratory organ failure within 3-5 years from the first appearance of the signs and symptoms. Only 10% of the diagnosed cases survive for longer than 10 years.

Who are at Risk?
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis doesn’t discriminate among the different ethnicities. It can affect people from any racial background. The following identified risk factors can predispose you to have ALS:

Age group. ALS can affect any age group but reports have shown that people who are 55 to 75 years old are more at risk.
Sex. The disease is more common in men by 20% but it still affects both sexes.
Ethnic background. Although ALS can occur is any ethnicity, the disease more commonly develops in Caucasians.
Military veterans. The US Department of Veterans Affairs classifies ALS as a service-connected disease. This is because it has been shown that veterans are twice more likely to develop ALS. The rationale for this remains unclear but exposure to environmental hazards and toxins is being considered.

Signs and Symptoms of ALS
The onset of the signs and symptoms of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is gradual in nature. Hence, it is often dismissed or overlooked until it develops into a more severe form of weakness.

In the early stage of the disease, the following usually develops:
•    Cramping or twitching of the hand and feet muscles
•    Muscle tightness or stiffness
•    Loss of muscle control in the arms
•    Fatigue and weakness
•    Falling and tripping incidents
•    Inability to grasp things well
•    Period of uncontrollable crying or laughing
•    Slurred speech

As the condition worsens, the following might be observed:
•    Difficulty of breathing
•    Shortness of breath
•    Difficulty in swallowing and chewing
•    Weight loss
•    Generalized muscle weakness and muscle atrophy
•    Paralysis

One of the earliest symptom that the patient might observe is difficulty doing tasks that require fine motor skills such as writing and buttoning a shirt. Aside from their chewing and swallowing problem, people with ALS metabolize and burn their calories faster, making them lose a significant amount of weight in a short period of time.

Taking Care of People with ALS
• In the early stages of the disease, safety is important. Remove tripping and falling hazards from your home. They can still do daily activities on their own with minimal help. As the disease progresses, they might need more assistance with mobility.
• ALS doesn’t affect a person’s memory, understanding, and problem-solving skills. It means that they are aware of the deterioration in their body’s functions, making them at risk of suffering from depression. Communicate with them and be as empathetic and encouraging as you can.
• Because they find it difficult to chew and swallow, assist them to a sitting position during mealtimes. Give them foods that are soft or pureed.
Bedsore prevention measures are important when the person has already reached the stage of paralysis. Using an air mattress can prevent bedsores by relieving the pressure on their back and improving blood circulation.

ALS has no known cure to date but some medicines are being prescribed to delay the progression of the disease. In the US, more than 6,000 people are being diagnosed with ALS annually. Raising public awareness of the condition can lead to a better support system for patients with ALS.

This is a guest blog entry.

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