ALS is a rare neurological condition that affects approximately 20,000 people in the U.S. each year. There is no known cure for the disease, and the goal of treatment is to manage the physical and emotional symptoms. There are different stages of ALS, and each patient will experience worsening symptoms as they progress through each of the three stages.
What Is ALS And How Does It Affect The Body?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurological disorder that attacks the nerve cells in the body. These nerve cells, or neurons, are responsible for the body’s movements, including walking, chewing and breathing.
There are three main stages of ALS — the early stages, middle stages and late (end) stages. The disease progresses differently for each person. Some progress relatively rapidly from one stage to another, whereas the progression may occur slowly for other patients.
Patients who are diagnosed with ALS require assistance with daily activities, especially in the middle and late stages. The care provided may come from a close relative in the early stages. In the end stages, meaning those who have a life expectancy of six months or less, patients often require hospice care to maintain a higher quality of life and ideal symptom management.
Symptoms Of Early Stages Of ALS
The early symptoms of ALS vary for each patient. They typically occur before diagnosis and may not alter the patient’s lifestyle in a major way. Most with ALS are able to continue driving and using their muscles in other common ways. However, there may be a noticeable difference in the ability to use the muscles. Several more common early symptoms of ALS include:
- Weak muscles
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle atrophy
- Involuntary twitching
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor balance
- Slurred speech
The symptoms of ALS in the early stages are sometimes limited to one region of the body, and widespread muscle complications are rarer. If early symptoms start to develop, then it is strongly encouraged to visit a medical professional who specializes in ALS for an accurate diagnosis if one has not already been given. In the early stages, getting a plan in order before symptoms worsen is important, which likely includes palliative care.
Progression Into Middle Stages Of ALS
Many of the symptoms seen in the early stages worsen in the middle stages. Whereas the muscle pain may exist predominantly in one region of the body in the early stages, the symptoms may become more widespread and affect some or most areas of the body. The symptoms vary for every patient, but the more common symptoms in the middle stages of ALS include:
- Some muscle paralysis
- Painful joints
- Difficulty standing
- Breathing complications
- Changes in daily routine
- Pseudobulbar affect
During this stage, muscle and joint discomfort is more common, and the patient may start to experience increased difficulty standing and walking. Muscle paralysis may start to occur as well, leading to the need for significant changes to the person’s daily routine. For some patients, the pseudobulbar affect occurs, which is defined as uncontrolled laughter or crying that is not reactionary to any particular event.
Late And End Stages Of ALS
Since there is no known cure, progression into the late stages of ALS is inevitable. The goal of late and end stages of ALS is to manage the symptoms and ensure the patient is able to have as much comfort, support and love as possible. The most notable symptoms include:
- Severe muscle paralysis
- Severe breathing complications
- Limited mobility of the limbs
- Inability to speak or eat
- Chronic headaches
- Severe fatigue
Most deaths caused by ALS are due to respiratory complications, as patients often slowly lose the ability to breathe on their own. They may also require assistance with moving around in a wheelchair, eating and speaking as well, along with managing any discomfort. Subsequently, hospice care is required for the end stages of ALS.
How Hospice Care Can Help ALS Patients
Hospice care is for ALS patients who have a life expectancy of six months or less and their family members. Hospice care ensures the patient has the physical, mental and spiritual support they need to maintain the best possible quality of life and comfortability in the end stages of ALS. Hospice care also assists family members who are coping.
Reach Out To Harbor Light Hospice
Contact Harbor Light Hospice for more information on how hospice care can help in the late stages of ALS and to get the support you or a loved one needs during the end stages of the disease. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and get the care they need during the end of life, and it is our goal at Harbor Light Hospice to make all our patients feel comfortable and have the care they need.