Earlier this month, the ALS Association launched an awareness campaign that spread like wildfire on social media. With the hashtag #IceBucketChallenge, celebrities and well-known groups alike poured ice buckets on themselves, tagged another person or group, and challenged them to do the same within 24 hours. Failing to do so, the tagged person or group must donate US$100 towards ALS research. Not a bad way to raise awareness and research funds.
But what is this ALS and why should you care about it?
What is ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurological disease that targets and degenerates motor neurons. These are nerve cells located at the brain, brain stem and spinal cord that give us voluntary control over the muscles in our face, arms and legs.
With ALS, motor neurons become unable to send signals to the muscles causing them to weaken and waste away. ALS patients soon lose the full ability to talk, move and walk. In worst case scenarios, even the lungs are unable to function without a ventilator support causing many to die due to respiratory failure. Although ALS does not impair a person’s mind, heart, and five senses, a patient may still suffer from depression and have difficulty in decision-making and remembering memories.
What are the symptoms?
ALS starts out very quietly. The symptoms are so subtle that a person may tend to overlook them. Here are some telltale signs of ALS:
- Cramps and muscle twitches
- Stiff, tight muscles
- Weakening of the arm and leg muscles
- Slurred, nasal speech
- Trouble chewing and swallowing
- Struggling to do simple tasks like writing, handling utensils, or buttoning shirts (upper motor neuron damage)
- Sudden awkwardness in walking, tripping over your own feet, and stumbling on flat surfaces (lower motor neuron damage)
Know the signs and raise the alarm immediately once spotted. Go to the nearest doctor for a complete check-up and ECG. Although the appearance of both upper and lower motor neuron signs may be a strong indication of ALS, some symptoms may be caused by a different disease. The earlier tests are conducted, the better to save a life.
Treatment for ALS
The cause and cure for ALS is not yet known. Continuous research is being done to test new drugs and learn more about this neurodegenerative disease. Currently, there is only one FDA-approved drug called Riluzole that is being administered to ALS patients. Although it does not reverse the damages already inflicted by ALS, it does slow down its progression. Coupled with physical therapy and use of special equipment, patients are also given other medicines that relieve pain, reduce fatigue, ease cramps and promote uninterrupted sleep to make them more mobile and comfortable.
Once diagnosed with ALS, a person is given an average life expectancy of 3 to 5 years. But each case is as unique as the person. As supporting technology improves and continuous medical research yields more answers, an ALS patient can still live actively and productively for even 10 to 20 years more. More importantly, the unending support and love a patient’s family and friends together with the ALS community are priceless gems improving their quality of life.
Author’s Note: When a group of people gathers for the first time, it is common practice to hold a fun activity to “break the ice“. This aims to reduce the awkwardness of the initial introduction and encourage a positive vibe around a room full of strangers. I would like to do the same with my first blog entry. So here is a video of myself, tagging myself to do the #IceBucketChallenge. I do not have $100 but I hope this entry helps in spreading ALS awareness to more people. Buckets up!