Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease that damages and destroys the nerve cells that control muscle movement. It is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the New York Yankee first baseman who died of its complications in 1941. In Europe and Australia the term Motor Neuron Disease, or MND, is preferred.



Amyotrophy:     atrophy (muscle wasting)

-a:                        without

-myo:                  muscle

-trophic              nutrition (related to interruption or loss of nerve supply that “feeds” the muscles)

Lateral:               location (where the problem occurs) – in the motor tracts along the sides of the spinal column

Sclerosis:           hardening (rigidity) of the motor neurons along the side of the spinal column from brain to muscles



Nerve cells (neurons) are responsible for sending instructions from our brain to our muscles, telling them to contract or relax. When the information pathway from the brain is interrupted, muscles cannot respond. PALS experience this as muscle weakness.



Weakness is mild at first but steadily worsens over time leading to muscle paralysis. Initially weakness may be limited to one area of the body such as the legs, arms or mouth.  With time, months or years, all of the voluntary muscles of the body typically do weaken.   Symptoms include muscle spasms or twitches, known as fasciculations. Muscle stiffness, known as spasticity, and cramping may also be noted. Early muscle loss in the limbs may express itself as tripping, stumbling, or the inability to grasp or hold onto household items such as pens, keys or eating utensils. If bulbar muscles (those involved in speech, chewing, and swallowing) are weakened, pALS may notice change in voice quality, slurred or slowed speech, increased saliva, or  coughing while drinking or eating. Some people experience exaggerated emotions (laughing or crying) and reflexes (yawning). When the lung muscles are involved pALS may note difficulty breathing while walking up stairs, eating, or while lying flat in bed. General increased fatigue with daily activities is common.


The ABC’s of ALS Videos

Dallas Forshew, RN, Manager of Clinical Research at the Forbes Norris Center in San Francisco, has taught introductory classes on ALS for many years. Her popular lectures are available in three segments on YouTube, courtesy of The Golden West Chapter of The ALS Association.

We have provided the links here for your convenience:

Segment 1 Segment 2 Segment 3
  • Definition of neurodegenerative diseases
  • Description of the nervous system and motor neuron pathways
  • Epidemiology (age, environmental factors, genetics, prevalence, incidence)
  • Definition of ALS
  • Differential diagnoses (How is the diagnosis made and variants of motor neuron disease)
  • Clinical presentation (How ALS is experienced)
  • Prognosis (Rate of progression)
  • Treatment (Symptom management)
  • Resources