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Behind the Ice Bucket Challenge: What is ALS?

Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital August 20, 2014 General Wellness

bucket of iceThe last few weeks have seen a slew of online videos all showing the same thing: a willing participant actually volunteering to have a bucket of ice, water, or a combination of both dumped on their heads, and then nominating three or four friends to do the same thing, a process better known as the Ice Bucket Challenge.

What started as a grassroots social media effort has blossomed into a full-blown craze: By dousing themselves in cold water and agreeing to donate anywhere from $10–$100 to the ALS Association, participants are raising awareness and funds for a disease that has yet to find a cure. Thus far, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more than $10 million for ALS research.

Awareness efforts like these are important in gaining attention for an often-overlooked cause, but the Challenge has also raised some questions: How much do participants really know about ALS? We break down the disease for you below.

What is ALS?

ALS, short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a neurological disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. More commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous baseball player who was diagnosed with it, ALS causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die, affecting the muscles used to move, speak, eat, and breathe.

What causes ALS?

ALS is usually only inherited in five to 10 percent of cases. The other 90–95 percent of cases occur randomly and although researchers have yet to name a specific cause, researchers believe genetic mutations, an excess of the brain chemical glutamate, and abnormalities in the immune system could be to blame.

What are the symptoms of ALS?

The earliest signs of AMS include:

  • Weakness in your legs, feet and ankles
  • Difficulty holding up your head or keeping good posture
  • Muscle cramps and twitching in your arms, shoulders and tongue
  • Slurred speech and trouble swallowing
  • Weakness in the hands or poor mobility
  • Difficulty walking or tripping during daily activities

Eventually, as the disease progresses, chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing will become difficult, as well.

Am I at risk for ALS? How do you know if you have it?

Research has suggested that lead and tobacco exposure could increase your risk for ALS, so quitting smoking and avoiding lead exposure in your home or workplace could eventually lower your risk. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine whether or not you have ALS. Although genetic testing is available for those with a family history of the disease, these tests can sometimes be inconclusive. For patients who do have ALS or are suspected to be at an increased risk, there are options available to help slow the progression of the disease, but nothing to cure it.

Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital is one of the facilities across the country that can help manage these symptoms.

“Bryn Mawr Rehab is skilled in treating ALS, including providing patients with the equipment and technology that is required to manage the disease,” says Clare Small-McEvoy, Inpatient Therapy Manager at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital.

Visit our website to learn more about Bryn Mawr Rehab and its services. To learn more about ALS, visit ALSA.org.