Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, causes a progressive wasting and loss of the upper and lower motor neurons that facilitate the movement of body parts. At onset, ALS patients may show symptoms such as muscle weakness, atrophy, hyperreflexia, or bulbar symptoms such as dysphagia or dysarthria. Deterioration progresses rapidly, and the later stages of ALS are characterized by severely limited mobility and respiratory failure, which is the primary cause of death. There is no specific diagnostic test for ALS, and there are a number of other conditions that may resemble ALS, making a diagnosis difficult. The variability of the initial presentation combined with the broad differential diagnosis may result in significant delays in diagnosis or, in some cases, misdiagnosis, which in turn have a negative impact on patient outcomes. There is no cure for ALS; however, many of the symptoms are treatable, and the physical and psychological symptoms are best managed through the efforts of a coordinated, multidisciplinary team. Nurses play a critical role in the clinical management of ALS and may be involved in coordinating the activities of the team, facilitating treatment, and helping patients and caregivers in making informed treatment and end-of-life decisions. Drug therapy for ALS is currently limited to riluzole; however, patients may be treated with a number of nonpharmacologic methods on the basis of their symptoms. A number of other treatment modalities, such as stem-cell-based therapy or gene therapy, and an array of neuroprotective clinical trials are currently under development for the treatment of ALS. Nurses may also have a key role in these various ALS studies.
Questions or comments about this article may be directed to Kathie Clarke, RN MS CNS-BC CVNS CCRN, at email@example.com. She is a neuroscience clinical nurse specialist at Phoenix Neurological Associates, Ltd., Phoenix, AZ.
Todd Levine, MD, is a neurologist at Phoenix Neurological Associates, Ltd., Phoenix, AZ.