Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis (MS) are similar in that they are both neurodegenerative disorders which impact the brain and central nervous system. Neither condition has a known cure, and both affect the muscles and nerves. Yet, the conditions have distinct differences, particularly in terms of their symptoms. Here, we explore the ways in which these conditions are similar and then examine their distinctive qualities.
Muscle Weakness: Weakness in the muscles of the arms and legs are common in both ALS and MS, as are difficulty walking and involuntary muscle spasms.
Speech Challenges: Slurred speech, while less common in MS, can be experienced by patients with both conditions. In ALS, this symptom worsens progressively, but it can be intermittent in people with MS.
Swallowing Problems: Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a symptom shared by both conditions. However, while it becomes progressively worse in patients with ALS, individuals with MS experience it to a lesser degree and intermittently.
Breathing Issues: ALS is characterized by the breaking down of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, which control the muscles in your body. Thus, as muscles begin to atrophy, breathing complications become more pronounced. In people with MS, lung function is lower than normal, but shortness of breath is typically only noticed upon exertion, if at all.
Both ALS and MS scar the covering of the nerve fibers, but this happens differently in each condition. In MS, the myelin sheaths, coverings which protect the body’s nerve cells, are compromised. This impedes the brain’s ability to send signals to other parts of the body, which affects both voluntary and involuntary muscle movement. The symptoms of ALS, on the other hand, all involve nerves that control voluntary muscle movement.
The early stages of ALS and MS bear similarities to one another, like fatigue, trouble walking, muscle stiffness, and twitching are common in both. Yet, physicians are able to distinguish among the two fairly quickly, due to the following distinct symptoms.
Vision Impairment: While ALS sufferers may notice challenges with voluntary muscle movement, they often do not lose the ability to see. For MS patients, however, the optic nerve can become swollen, resulting in vision problems. In fact, up to 80% of all MS patients experience vision-related symptoms.
Bladder/Bowel Issues: Issues with involuntary muscles can present bladder challenges, including incontinence, in at least 80% of people with MS. Diarrhea is also common for MS sufferers. People with ALS may not experience either condition, but constipation is common in both illnesses.
Tingling/Pain: A select population of ALS patients experience tingling, but it is often temporary. For people with MS, however, sensory symptoms are common and pronounced. Numbness, tingling, and pain are reported by MS patients.
While the symptoms described above are commonly associated with ALS, MS, or both, having one or more of these symptoms does not mean a patient is afflicted with either condition. With that being said, it is always a good idea to have a physician weigh in on any new or unfamiliar symptoms to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.