Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – Lou Gehrig's Disease) Center at Allegheny Health Network (AHN) provides exceptional, multidisciplinary care to patients with ALS and are at the forefront of researching new ways to tackle the disease. The center is designated by the ALS Association and its Western Pennsylvania Chapter as a Certified Treatment Center of Excellence for its outstanding standards of care. It is the only ALS treatment program in western Pennsylvania recognized by the ALS Association for meeting the highest levels of established national criteria in treating and managing the disease.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. There is no cure yet for ALS, but we provide patients and their families with the best all-around care that involves specialists from many different areas, and a team that is compassionate and extremely committed to their patients.
The ALS Association offers Certified Treatment Center of Excellence designation for institutions, like AHN, that meet rigorous eligibility criteria, including: diversity of professional expertise in ALS; access to coordinated, multidisciplinary care; a strong, ongoing relationship with the local ALS Association chapter; and evidence of active participation in ALS research.
Our multidisciplinary team addresses all aspects of a patient’s needs because it is truly a disease that takes a village in order to give each person the best life possible. The ALS Center at AHN includes specialized physicians, respiratory therapists, speech therapists, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionists and mental health specialists whose primary goal is to offer the highest level of evidence-based quality care and services to patients and their families.
Early ALS symptoms include:
- Difficulty lifting items
- Muscle weakness in the hands, arms, legs or feet
- Tripping or dropping items
- Trouble using hands for everyday activities
As the disease progresses, patients may experience:
- Cramps and stiffness in the hands and feet
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or breathing
- Increased muscle weakness and twitching
- Shortness of breath
- Slurred speech
There is no specific test that can diagnose ALS, so diagnosis is based on an expert evaluation of symptoms and your nervous system. Symptoms of ALS may mimic those of other nervous system problems, so your physician will recommend tests to rule out other conditions, including:
Electromyogram (EMG) measures electrical activity of muscles at rest and during contraction to determine whether your symptoms are nerve-related or muscle-related. An EMG is often done along with a nerve conduction velocity (NCV), which measures how well and how fast the nerves can send electrical signals.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of organs and structures within your body. MRI results are often normal in ALS patients, but they may indicate an alternative diagnosis.
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is a test to evaluate the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord. It is performed by inserting a needle into your lumbar area (small of your back).
Blood tests can rule out other diseases or conditions.
Since opening in 2003, the ALS Center has made significant strides to maximize patients’ abilities, gain daily relief and extend their lives. Physicians intervene early with respiratory support by using a Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) machine. A non-invasive form of therapy often used to treat sleep apnea, BiPAP delivers pressurized air that keeps the throat muscles from collapsing and reduces obstructions by acting as a splint.
The AHN team also provides feeding tubes early on in the disease to ensure nourishment, physical and occupational support, mental health support to patients and family members for coping strategies, and handicap-accessible setup in patients’ homes.
A cornerstone of its mission, extensive research is continually facilitated at AHN’s ALS Center to identify the cause for the debilitating disease, slow its progression and, ultimately, determine a cure. The research team recently completed a trial that studied the effectiveness of new drugs to treat the disease. The center also plans to collaborate with other researchers to develop better designs of daily living equipment, including cervical collars, hands splints and speech devices, and partake in research endeavors involving gene therapies and stem cell transplants.