When ALS complications recently snuffed the life out of Sam Shepard, a towering figure in American drama, it made many people take a closer look at the menacing Neurodegenerative Disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other disorders affecting the neuromuscular system have been discussed in health sites, but what exactly is ALS?

The other questions that pop up include what health conditions or risk factors predispose people to the disease? Are there remedies or palliative therapies? Does damage accumulate with the passage of years?

ALS sufferers

Besides the award-winning playwright Sam Shepard, ALS has claimed the lives of famous people including Chinese military leader Mao Zedong.

The malaise is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the baseball player who became afflicted with it.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting the nerve cells in the spinal cord and the brain. Medical interventions like the drug Riluzole have been prescribed by doctors to treat the disorder and prolong life by a few months. A recent breakthrough is that the FDA has cleared a new drug, Radicava, for treatment of patients diagnosed with ALS.

Extensive supportive therapy or participation in a multidisciplinary ALS clinic have also aided ALS sufferers with functioning and improving quality of life. Palliative measures are crucial because the disorder leads to gradual loss of control of muscles, and even possible paralysis.

The disease eventually inhibits not just movement but also breathing, leading to death.

Disease continues to baffle

ALS generally affects adults in their mid-to-late life stages and is characterized by progressive muscle weakness and atrophy. It is marked by the selective degeneration of motor neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord.

Underlying the disease may be a defect in a gene. In many instances, however, the cause is unknown.

Neurologists can attest to a huge percentage of cases where the disease sneaks up on people, like a thief in the night. It may show up in a fairly nonspecific way, with weakness in an individual’s hand or foot.

Hand muscle atrophy is a hallmark of the loss of muscle manifesting in those with ALS.

Loss of a man brimming with artistry

It is ironic that a dynamic and creative force of the stage and film, a brain worker who let nothing crush his spirit and individuality, would be bogged down by the disease. Fellow artists including American singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith, filmmaker Laurence Fuller, and many others have paid tributes to Sam Shepard. He was, as playwright Beau Willimon stated, “one of the greats.”

Technological advances to ascertain individual disease causes have sparked hope for people showing the telltale signs of ALS. What Sam Shepard did not live to see, others may reap benefits from down the road.

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