Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS) are two distinct diseases that share many commonalities. They are classified as neurodegenerative diseases, which means they affect the body’s central nervous system and lead to a decline in or complete loss of bodily motor functions.
Initially, both diseases can present very similar symptoms, such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle spasticity
- Loss of muscle control
However despite their similarities, ALS and MS are distinct conditions with vastly different long-term symptoms, treatment options, and life expectancies. This is why knowing the differences between the two is so important to the health of your loved one.
ALS vs. MS
The primary difference between ALS and MS is what the disease targets. MS attacks the protective tissue around our nerves known as myelin, while ALS attacks the nerves directly.1
The differences between ALS and MS can range from the symptoms exhibited to the rapidity of decline to the development of ailments and conditions associated with each disease. To fully understand how the two are alike and different, it’s important to understand each disease.
ALS: What to Know
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects neuron motor nerves in the brain that control all of our body’s voluntary movements, like walking, reaching, chewing, and speaking.
With ALS, these motor nerves deteriorate gradually as symptoms worsen, until eventually, the brain cannot communicate with the muscles entirely. When this happens, the muscles atrophy and waste away. Eventually, all motor functionality is lost, including the ability to eat and breathe.
Sadly, there is no known cure for ALS. Although certain treatments and medications can mitigate the discomfort associated with its symptoms and prevent complications related to the disease, most people diagnosed with ALS see their symptoms worsen to the point of death within three to five years. With the proper treatment and ALS homecare, some may live for a decade or more with the disease.
Symptoms of ALS
You might ask, “What are the early signs of ALS?” ALS typically presents symptoms in one of two ways. The first way, known as “limb onset,” refers to developing symptoms that affect the legs, arms, and feet.
The second way that early ALS symptoms can manifest is called “bulbar onset.” This refers to symptoms that affect a person’s ability to chew, speak, and swallow.
ALS is a disease that affects each person slightly differently, including the development of specific symptoms and the rate at which the disease progresses. Even so, in its early stages, ALS is typically indicated by the following limb and bulbar onset symptoms:
- Muscle cramps, twitching, or spasms in the arms, legs, or shoulders
- Muscle spasticity or tightness/stiffness
- Pronounced weakness or fatigue in muscles of the arms, legs, or diaphragm
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing, including regular choking
- Twitching in muscles of the face, tongue, and throat
People exhibiting early ALS symptoms experience trouble performing simple tasks like grasping objects, buttoning shirts, or keeping their balance. An ALS patient may also notice a perceptible change in their speaking ability. For instance, they may experience vocal strain or hoarseness and find it difficult to speak loudly or form words altogether.
Who is at Risk of Developing ALS?
ALS typically affects people between the ages of 55 and 75, although symptoms can begin sooner. It affects slightly more men than women and is more prevalent among people with Caucasion and non-Hispanic backgrounds.
ALS is caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Genetic mutations that affect the body’s ability to process RNA molecules and synthesize and recycle proteins can lead to ALS development. Environmental factors like diet, exposure to toxins, and occupational habits have also been linked to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
MS: What to Know
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s own immune system attacks the protective fiber around the nerves known as myelin. Damage to the myelin inhibits the body’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body—the results of which are destructive to the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves.
Unlike ALS, which progresses relatively quickly over the course of three to five years and is almost always fatal, MS is a long-lasting disease characterized by periods of remission and relapse. People can live fairly regular lifespans after being diagnosed with the disease.2
Even so, the symptoms of MS can be devastating, imposing severe restrictions on a person’s ability to function and even care for themselves. There is no cure for MS, though proper Multiple Sclerosis care can be beneficial in recovering from flare-ups and managing symptoms.
Symptoms of MS
The symptoms of MS vary widely across diagnoses. A range of factors can play a part in what specific symptoms are expressed, including which nerves are damaged and the amount of damage they’ve incurred.
From person to person, the amount, severity, and frequency of symptoms can also vary greatly. Those symptoms can include:
- Difficulty walking or inability to walk
- Muscle weakness or spasms
- Decreased bladder and/or bowel control
- Numbness in limbs, usually on one side of the body
- Vision problems such as eye pain and partial or complete loss of vision and blurry and/or doubled vision
- Pain or tingling in various parts of the body
- Issues with memory and focus
For those with what’s known as primary-progressive MS, the symptoms appear gradually and then progress regularly without periods of remission. For others, the disease is marked by a series of flare-ups and periods of remission.
During periods of remission, which can last from weeks to months to even years, people with MS might experience minor symptoms or none at all. When symptoms are present, periods can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but usually improve.
Even so, in about 50% of MS cases, patients experience progressively worsening symptoms within 10 to 20 years after diagnosis in what’s known as secondary-progressive MS. These symptoms typically affect mobility.
Who is at Risk of Developing MS?
Typically, MS is diagnosed in people between the ages of 16 and 40 years old, but the specific causes of the diseases are mostly unknown. Genetics, environment, and lifestyle factors are all thought to play a part.
While MS is not hereditary, having a close relative with the disease can put you at greater risk of developing it. Likewise, medical issues like other autoimmune diseases or even exposure to viruses—like Epstein Barr and certain strains of herpes—can increase your risk.
Climate conditions, obesity, and lifestyle choices like smoking are also thought to be contributing factors.
Age, sex, and race can also play a part. For instance, women are twice as likely as men to develop MS, and the disease is more prevalent among people of European descent.3
Diagnosing ALS and MS
MS and ALS are serious diseases that can pose life-altering obstacles for you and your loved one. Knowing how to differentiate between the signs and symptoms of both can help determine the immediate care needs of your loved one. Still, proper diagnosis by a qualified medical professional is the only way to know definitively whether MS or ALS is present.
Unfortunately, diagnosing both diseases comes with its own complications. There is no singular test for diagnosing either MS or ALS. Instead, physicians rely on a battery of tests and procedures to determine MS or ALS presence and rule out other conditions. These tests might include X-rays and MRIs, blood and urine tests, or electromyography exams, among others.
Whether it’s ALS or MS, Your Loved One Deserves the Best Care.
Whether your loved one is developing signs of MS or ALS, early detection is key to ensuring they get the help they need to stay healthy as long as possible. There are no known cures for either disease, but certain medications, treatments, and proper care can improve the quality of life.
Still, managing diseases like MS and ALS can present a range of challenges for those afflicted and their families. Especially with ALS, and in certain cases of MS, the disease can progress to the point where the patient needs regular, intensive care. And beyond the risks to their physical health, both conditions can have deleterious effects on a person’s mental health, often resulting in feelings of isolation and depression.
We’ll administer doctor-recommended physical therapy, take your loved one to appointments, and give you the support you need to deal with what can be a very stressful and emotional situation. This means you never have to worry about the quality of care your loved one receives, granting you more time to focus on the things that really matter, such as spending quality time with your loved one.
Whatever your long-term or at-home care needs, Alliance Homecare is here for you.
- WebMD. What’s the Difference Between ALS and MS? https://www.webmd.com/multiple-sclerosis/ms-or-als
- WebMD. What is Multiple Sclerosis? https://www.webmd.com/multiple-sclerosis/what-is-multiple-sclerosis
- Multiple Sclerosis News Today. Risk Factors for Multiple Sclerosis. https://multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com/risk-factors-for-multiple-sclerosis/