Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a specific disorder that involves the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. In a number of countries, the term motor neurone disease (MND) is commonly used, while others use that term for a group of five conditions of which ALS is the most common. ALS is characterized by stiff muscles, muscle twitching, and gradually worsening weakness due to muscles decreasing in size. This results in difficulty speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing.
The cause is not known in 90% to 95% of cases. About 5–10% of cases are inherited from a person’s parents.About half of these genetic cases are due to one of two specific genes. The diagnosis is based on a person’s signs and symptoms with testing done to rule out other potential causes.
No cure for ALS is known. A medication called riluzole may extend life by about two to three months. Non-invasive ventilation may result in both improved quality and length of life. The disease usually starts around the age of 60 and in inherited cases around the age of 50. The average survival from onset to death is three to four years. About 10% survive longer than 10 years. Most die from respiratory failure. In much of the world, rates of ALS are unknown. In Europe and the United States, the disease affects about two people per 100,000 per year.
Descriptions of the disease date back to at least 1824 by Charles Bell. In 1869, the connection between the symptoms and the underlying neurological problems was first described by Jean-Martin Charcot, who in 1874 began using the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It became well known in the United States in the 20th century when it affected the baseball player Lou Gehrig, and later when Stephen Hawking gained fame for his scientific achievements. In 2014, videos of the ice bucket challenge went viral on the internet and increased public awareness.