By Vishal Mehta, BPharm, RPh

June is ALS awareness month. Also referred to as Lou Gerig’s disease, ALS (short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is a motor neuron disease, where there is gradual paralysis and breakdown of muscles. People with ALS eventually lose the ability to walk, talk, eat/swallow and eventually breathe. There are about 3000 Canadians currently living with ALS and about 2-3 people pass away daily worldwide due to ALS.

Motor neurons are specialized nerve cells which link the brain and the muscles of our body. The brain uses these neurons to send messages to the muscles, via electrical impulses, telling them when to contract or relax and thereby allowing daily functioning. When these neurons breakdown and die, in ALS, the brain loses the ability to communicate with the muscles, hence inducing muscle weakness and wasting, eventually leading to loss of movement and motor function.

Common early symptoms of ALS include feeling weak, fatigue, muscle cramping or twitching and muscle stiffness or rigidity. These would manifest in an individual in the form of tripping, dropping things, slurring speech, difficulty swallowing and shortness of breath. Eventually as the muscles weaken further and continue throughout the body, there will be difficulty breathing, chewing, swallowing and speaking.

The most common type of ALS is called SPORADIC ALS which most often affects individuals between 40 and 60 years of age, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. FAMILIAL ALS, which accounts for 5-10% of cases, is where there is a family member that passes down ALS (from parent to child).

Although pain is not common in ALS, some individuals do feel pain, joint stiffness and discomfort from cramping. Pain relief medications are recommended for people with ALS who are in moderate to severe pain. These can include some forms of opiates, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as aspirin, or acetaminophen. There are also medications that can be used to treat painful cramps, and medications specifically used to treat spasticity (severe muscle stiffness).

By raising awareness about ALS and its devastating impact on individuals and their families, we can strive for greater support, research, and advancements to improve the lives of those living with this relentless disease.