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What You Should Know About Two Nervous System Diseases, ALS and MS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS) can both affect the nerves and cause weakness, and they both have “sclerosis” in their names, but they are very different diseases. Sarah Yang, MD, a neurologist with Banner Brain & Spine, shared these key facts about the two conditions.

Here’s what to know about MS

MS is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord and damages the protective layer called the myelin sheath that covers the nerve fibers. It makes it hard for the brain and the nerves to communicate and triggers symptoms that could come and go or could last for a long time.

  • Who is at risk? Anyone can develop MS, and people with a history of other autoimmune disorders may be at higher risk. It’s more common in women.
  • Who is affected? People are usually younger adults—in their 20s to 40s—when they are diagnosed with MS. About 1 million people are living with MS in the United States.
  • What are the symptoms? Symptoms can include pain in the eyes, blurred or double vision, muscle weakness, numbness or tingling, muscular problems and tremors. Not everyone has all of these symptoms. The symptoms that do occur tend to come on quickly.
  • How is it diagnosed? If you have symptoms that point to MS, your doctor can look for signs of it with an MRI. You may also need a lumbar puncture.
  • How does it progress? People with MS can have periods where they don’t have symptoms and times when they have a relapse.
  • How is it treated? MS is not curable, but it’s manageable with medication. People with it generally do very well after being diagnosed and starting treatment, according to Dr. Yang.

Here’s what to know about ALS

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a degenerative disease that affects the motor nerves in the body. Symptoms of ALS get worse over time. As neurons break down and die, the brain can’t control the body’s muscles. So gradually, people with ALS can’t move, speak, eat or breathe.

  • Who is at risk? In 10% of cases, a mutated gene is linked with ALS, but in 90% of cases, there’s no known cause.
  • Who is affected? People are usually in their 60s when they develop symptoms. About 12,000 to 15,000 people in the U.S. have ALS.
  • What are the symptoms? People with ALS typically have gradual, progressive weakness that spreads throughout the body but doesn’t cause pain.
  • How is it diagnosed? ALS is diagnosed with a medical history, exam, and electromyography, which measures how your muscles respond when a nerve is stimulated. Your doctor may also order an MRI and blood tests to rule out other causes of weakness. ALS can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages, and it takes two years to diagnose, on average. If you are concerned that you might have ALS, you may want to see a neuromuscular specialist.
  • How does it progress? Once people are diagnosed with ALS, they typically have a two-year life expectancy since respiratory failure sets in. But some people live much longer.
  • How is it treated? Medication and therapy can help slow progression, but ALS can’t be cured or stopped.

The bottom line

While ALS and MS have a few similar symptoms, they are different diseases with different treatments and outcomes. If you would like to talk to a neurologist about any worrisome symptoms, reach out to Banner Health.

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