Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that can be very hard to accurately diagnose. Affecting nearly half a million people worldwide, awareness of this disease has grown in recent years, partly due to viral online events such as the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Much of the ALS diagnosis procedure focuses on trying to exclude the possibility of other potential diseases which are causing certain symptoms to be exhibited. If an individual is experiencing symptoms such as muscle weakness, a number of blood tests may be carried out which can help narrow down the possible causes.
Getting a ‘positive’ result in one of these can indicate that the symptoms may be caused by another medical condition altogether, rather than ALS.
Here we take a look at some of the tests which may be used and what the results can mean for the patient.
A range of different hormones released in too low or too high quantities can indicate the presence of specific illnesses. With the parathyroid gland, if it starts releasing too many hormones, an individual may feel weakness in their muscles and have problems such as cramps and muscle twitching.
When this occurs, it’s usually caused by something like a tumor rather than a neurodegenerative disease such as ALS.
Various ailments affecting the thyroid may also elicit ALS-type symptoms. That’s understandable when you understand how important the thyroid is for the body’s function.
For example, a dysfunctional thyroid often has an effect on energy levels. If the patient feels weak or there is physical evidence of muscle disease, this might indicate the presence of ALS, but their condition may instead be related to an overactive or under active thyroid.
Hepatitis is a disease that can cause muscle damage. This might be perceived as muscle weakness or cramps but is actually a result of the immune response of the body. Hepatitis inflames the liver and is caused by a virus and there are a number of different tests used to help diagnose it.
Whilst it can cause symptoms very similar to ALS, hepatitis is again a different kind of disease altogether. Most people with hepatitis A and B usually recover over time and with the right treatment. Hepatitis C is more severe and can lead to chronic liver disease.
Another test often used is to find out if the individual is deficient in Vitamin B12. This is an important vitamin for neurological function and a severe shortage can exhibit symptoms which are similar to ALS.
B12 boosters can often reverse the symptoms and quickly improve the patient’s condition.
The symptoms of this autoimmune disease are wide and varied. Nerve damage is not uncommon and can be a cause of the virus itself or from medication that the patient is taking. Symptoms experienced by ALS patients, such as muscle weakness, are also fairly common in those diagnosed with HIV.
There are a wide range of cancers and each have a different impact on the body. It’s not unusual for the growth of a tumor to affect someone’s nervous system. A tumor, for example, may press against a nerve or muscle group causing weakness or other symptoms commonly experienced by ALS patients such as fasciculations (muscle twitching).
The basic function of the immune system is to help protect us from infection. For example, if a virus attacks our body, the immune system springs into life to help limit or destroy the virus. This works for most of the time but can go wrong. The body may, with some diseases, start to produce autoimmune responses that actually damage healthy cells.
This, in turn, can lead to many ALS-like symptoms such as loss of muscle strength and twitching. In fact, there is one autoimmune disease, called multifocal motor neuropathy, that only affects neurons which serve our muscles and creates symptoms very similar to those experienced by people diagnosed with ALS.
This type of test is carried out when there is a suspicion of muscle damage. Creatine kinase is an enzyme that is present when an individual has exercised strenuously. It can also be a sign that someone has muscle disease.
In individuals who have ALS, the creatine kinase test can show up as positive, with elevated levels of the enzyme.
For most of the tests mentioned above, a negative or positive result can help physicians rule out other possible causes of symptoms such as muscle weakness, tumors and auto-immune diseases.
The process of diagnosing ALS is often a case of eliminating other potential causes of the symptoms which the patient is experiencing.