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Health Focus: June is ALS Awareness Month

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JOHNSON CITY (June 16, 2015) – June marks ALS Awareness Month, bringing attention to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known to many as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, ultimately causing severe muscle atrophy. There is no cure for ALS, a disease that gathered much attention last year across the globe as thousands of people conducted “ice bucket challenges” to raise money for continued ALS research.

An ALS diagnosis carries a poor prognosis, with the mean survival being between three to five years, and treatment of the disease is not always affective.

Several faculty members at East Tennessee State University work with ALS patients, as the impact of the disease on an individual’s body is widespread.

“It is a complex disease that requires a multidisciplinary approach to care,” said Kristen McHenry, a respiratory therapist and assistant professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at ETSU’s College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.

Muscle weakness affiliated with ALS can cause difficulty in swallowing, speaking and even breathing, she noted.

“This causes a restrictive lung disease or a decrease in lung volumes and capacities,” McHenry explained. “Respiratory involvement eventually occurs in all ALS patients and pulmonary complications are the most frequent cause of death – aspiration, respiratory infection, respiratory failure and so forth.”

With the progressive degeneration of muscles, individuals with the disease also experience declines in the ability to feed themselves, which means a nutritionist is also often a part of an ALS patient’s treatment team.

“Adaptive feeding equipment may be used to help the individual feed himself or herself as long as possible or the individual may need to be hand fed,” said Dr. Eileen Cress, a nutrition professor in the College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences at ETSU. “Calorie-dense, oral nutritional supplements may be provided to meet nutritional needs. If the individual desires, nutritional support can be administered via a feeding tube.”

Like his colleagues, Dave Arnall, also treats patients with ALS in his role as a physical therapist.

“It is important, for the patient’s comfort, to have range of motion exercises designed by a physical therapist,” explained Arnall, a physical therapy professor in the College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences. “Daily range of motion exercises help to mobilize all of the joints in an extremity and reduce the pain of immobility that ALS patients experience.”

 Signs and symptoms of ALS include:

  • Muscle weakness that usually begins in localized muscle groups. The patient will typically experience fasciculation, or involuntary quivering, of the affected muscles. (Because weakness and fatigue may be caused by many diseases or health problems, a nerve conduction study by a trained neurologist is required to make a definitive diagnosis.)
  • As the disease progresses, inspiratory muscle decline may occur, making it difficult for the patient to maintain effective ventilation. This can lead to ineffective cough and nocturnal hypoxemia (low oxygen) and hypoventilation (high carbon dioxide).
  • Slurring of speech or trouble swallowing or chewing.
  • Difficulty walking or frequent tripping.
  • Difficulty holding your head up.
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