What Is Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

What is Lou Gehrig's Disease?

Lou Gehrig’s disease, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, is a rare family of neurological diseases that involve the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement, such as chewing, walking, breathing and talking. Lou Gehrig’s disease is progressive, becoming more severe over time. The disease receives its name from the hall of fame baseball player Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with the condition in 1939 at age 36.

Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms

Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms can initially be so subtle that they are overlooked. Nevertheless, the symptoms develop into more obvious weakness or atrophy that may cause a physician to suspect Lou Gehrig’s disease. Early Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms may include:

  • Muscle twitches in the arm, leg, shoulder, or tongue.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Tight and stiff muscles (spasticity).
  • Muscle weakness affects an arm, leg, neck or diaphragm.
  • Slurred and nasal speech.
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing.

The first sign of Lou Gehrig’s disease may appear in hand or arm as an individual experiences difficulty with simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt, writing, or turning a key in a lock. Regardless of where the symptoms first appear, muscle weakness and atrophy spread to other body parts as the disease progresses. Individuals may develop problems with moving, swallowing (dysphagia), speaking or forming words (dysarthria), and breathing (dyspnea). Although the sequence of emerging symptoms and the rate of disease progression vary from person to person, individuals will eventually be unable to stand or walk, get in or out of bed on their own, or use their hands and arms.

Stephen Hawking

What causes Lou Gehrig’s disease?

The cause of Lou Gehrig’s disease is unknown, and scientists do not yet know why the disease strikes some people and not others. However, evidence from scientific studies suggests that genetics and environment play a role in Lou Gehrig’s disease development. An important step toward determining Lou Gehrig’s disease risk factors was made in 1993 when scientists supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) discovered that mutations in the SOD1 gene were associated with some cases of familial Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lou Gehrig’s disease researchers are also studying the impact of environmental factors. Researchers investigate several possible causes, such as exposure to toxic or infectious agents, viruses, physical trauma, diet, and behavioral and occupational factors.

Who gets Lou Gehrig’s disease?

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between 14,000 – 15,000 Americans have Lou Gehrig’s disease. There are several potential risk factors for Lou Gehrig’s disease, including:

  • Although the disease can strike at any age, symptoms commonly develop between 55 and 75.
  • Men are slightly more likely than women to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease. However, as age increases, the difference between men and women disappears.
  • Race and ethnicity: Caucasians and non-Hispanics are most likely to develop the disease.

ALS digram cropped

How is Lou Gehrig’s disease treated?

Presently, there is no cure. However, treatments available can help control symptoms, prevent unnecessary complications, and make living with the disease easier. They include:

  • Medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Nutritional support
  • Breathing support

Prognosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease

Most with Lou Gehrig’s disease have a lifespan of three to five years from when the symptoms first appear. However, about 10% of people survive for ten or more years.

Lou Gehrig’s disease research

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about Lou Gehrig’s disease. The goals of NINDS research on Lou Gehrig’s disease are to understand the mechanisms involved in the development and progression of the disease, investigate the influence of genetics and other potential risk factors, identify biomarkers, and develop new and more effective treatments.

  • Cellular defects
  • Stem cells
  • Familial versus sporadic ALS
  • Biomarkers
  • Exploration of new treatment options

Mobility for those with Lou Gehrig’s disease and mobility for those with ALS.

A universal factor for those living with ALS is the progressive loss of the ability to walk, necessitating a power wheelchair. Quantum Rehab, the global leader in individualised power wheelchair solutions, emphasises mobility technologies specific to those living with ALS. Quantum powerchairs incorporate power-adjustable seating for user repositioning and comfort; specialty drive controls, including using a single finger or one’s head to operate the powerchair; and a highly adaptable design to meet an individual’s current and future needs. Quantum powerchairs feature the latest advanced technologies to increase the independence of those living with ALS.

iLevel seat elevation technology allows users to operate the powerchair seated or standing. Bluetooth is also integrated into Quantum’s Q-Logic 3 electronics, so those with ALS can operate much of their environment with the power chair drive control. Quantum powerchairs are designed to give those living with ALS optimal medical comfort and maximum independence.

ICON Rehab Powerchair

ICON Rehab Powerchair UK

Quantum Q6 Edge 2 Powerchair

Quantum Q6 Edge 2 Powerchair profile

Mobility and assistive technology needs

People with ALS often require power mobility assistance very quickly due to the rapidly progressive nature of the disease. In the beginning stages of ALS, a client may require a power chair with high-back support to assist with positioning and performance of mobility-related activities of daily living (MRADLs). A joystick should be used if the individual has adequate hand movement for controlling the powerchair since it provides the most direct control for driving a power base. It is often advised to provide a client with a hand controller with switch jacks.

As the user’s ability changes, switches can be added to operate on/off and mode operations. As the disease progresses, the individual may find he or she has a limited time during the day when a joystick can be operated. At this time, more advanced electronics, such as a mini-proportional joystick, head array or chin control, may need to be considered to operate the powerchair. The individual will most likely require the use of postural support components and power positioning functions to assist in pressure relief, postural realignment and function.

These components may also help with transfers, sitting tolerance and comfort. The power positioning options for consideration include power tilt and recline systems, power-adjustable seat height, power articulating leg rests or a power articulating foot platform. Providing a power base that can accept oxygen and eventually a ventilator. Optional LED fender lights on the Q6 Edge 2 help clients see and be seen.


Based on the mobility needs of an individual with ALS, they may benefit from a power base with the ability to accept full seating and positioning options, various drive controls, and power positioning. They can accommodate a vent tray and oxygen holder. The Edge 3 and Q6 Edge 2 fit these criteria and are options for a person in the beginning stages of ALS.

Related Reading: What Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

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