By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Muscle fatigue, muscle twitching, muscle cramps, slurred speech? These are some of the early signs of ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (or Lou Gherig’s disease). ALS is a rare progressive neurological disorder. Acupuncture and TCM can help to manage the symptoms of ALS and slow the progress of this degenerative motor neuron disease.
ALS is a neurological disease that affects the motor neurons (or nerve cells) in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary movements. Over time, people with ALS develop muscular problems that make it hard for them to walk, talk, eat, drive, and perform all kinds of daily activities. As more neurons break down, the muscles can begin to waste away. ALS can also lead to speech problems and changes in personality. Some patients with ALS will develop respiratory problems that make it very difficult to breathe.
In the early stage of ALS, people may have muscle spasms, fatigue, and only some of the body is affected. As the disease progresses to the middle stage, they may begin to have more muscle twitches (fasciculations) or contractures, which is when the joints become painfully stiff and rigid. This can eventually lead to paralysis, and a person having to use a wheelchair.
Eventually, ALS can affect breathing and eating to the point that a person is not getting sufficient oxygen or nutrition, which can cause headaches and an inability to concentrate.
Unfortunately, ALS often leads to other serious illnesses that are fatal. People with ALS may develop severe respiratory problems or pneumonia. Some patients may have cardiac arrhythmias, or pulmonary embolism. Medical treatments for ALS can, in some cases, help slow down the degeneration of the nerve cells and prolong life.
Acupuncture and TCM offer an effective adjunct to standard treatment for ALS that may help to improve motor ability, speech, and breathing. Acupuncture has been used successfully to manage ALS and many other neurodegenerative diseases, including: essential tremor, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, seizures, Bell’s palsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), and recovery from stroke.
What Causes ALS?
While only 5-10% of people with ALS seem to have inherited it, genetics are considered likely to be a factor. As with other conditions, like CF, one parent may not show any signs of the disease, but may have the genetic mutation that causes ALS in their DNA. Having a genetic mutation that affects the way a protein functions or doesn’t function may be what causes cell degeneration like that of ALS.
Medical science has not determined the exact cause of ALS, but it may also have to do with some environmental or behavioral factors. For example, because rates of ALS are higher amongst athletes and members of the military, it has been posited that there may be some correlation to high levels of exertion and the breakdown of motor neurons.
Top 10 Symptoms of ALS
Signs of ALS may be slow to develop, and are sometimes misinterpreted as symptoms of other neurological disorders, like MS. Both ALS and MS can start off with seemingly minor symptoms like muscle twitching, or weakness in the legs. But over time, ALS will begin affect speech and swallowing, while MS is more likely to cause numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, and vision problems. MS symptoms may come and go, while ALS is usually marked by a steady decline as the disease progresses. Muscular dystrophy can also have similar symptoms.
The most common symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease/ALS include:
- Having trouble grasping items or lifting things
- Muscle weakness, muscle cramps, muscle twitches, charley horse
- Arms and legs become fatigued easily, trouble walking, trip easily
- Voice sounds higher, more nasal when speaking
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing, choking on liquids
- Eyes or mouth don’t close all the way
- Bouts of uncontrolled laughing, crying, or yawning
- Easily frustrated or confused
- Feelings of anxiety or suspicion
As ALS progresses, secondary problems like malnutrition due to difficulty eating, trouble breathing, or emotional symptoms may become more prominent. ALS may also lead to problems with incontinence and control of the bowels.
Diagnosis and Treatment for ALS
ALS is not considered an autoimmune disease, although recent research suggests that some people with ALS are more prone to developing autoimmune disorders because they have a particular genetic mutation that affects the production of virus-sensing immune cells. As with autoimmune disorders like lupus, Addison’s disease, fibromyalgia, ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome, Myasthenia Gravis, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it can be difficult to get a diagnosis for ALS.
If ALS is suspected, a doctor will first do an examination looking at motor and nerve function. Next, they will do an EMG, a test to check the electrical signals between the nervous system and the muscles. An MRI may show whether there is damage to the spinal cord. Blood tests can rule out other diseases that cause similar symptoms, such as muscular dystrophy, or myasthenia gravis.
The drug most often used to treat ALS is riluzole, which acts on the brain chemicals that affect nervous system signals. Specifically, riluzole prevents excess production of glutamate, which seems to occur in some people with ALS, and is believed to contribute to dysfunction in the brain and spinal cord. Riluzole seems to have some protective capabilities, staving off the progression of ALS symptoms and further degeneration of nerve cells. Riluzole is not very effective for everyone with ALS, though, and it can cause side effects like dizziness and gastrointestinal problems.
Acupuncture and TCM offer a safe alternative or integrative treatment plan for ALS which can help to reduce symptoms like muscle twitches, muscle weakness, and trouble swallowing. TCM treatments can also reduce the side effects of medications for ALS like riluzole, alleviating digestive symptoms and dizziness. Acupuncture works holistically to address the stress and emotional impact of having a chronic illness, helping to relieve depression and anxiety.
Acupuncture for ALS
One of the foundational concepts of TCM is the idea that both blood and Qi (life force energy) flow through the body along channels. In Western medicine, these channels are recognized as the nerves of the nervous system, and the blood vessels of the cardiovascular system. In the TCM system of medicine, blood flow and energy flow can be stimulated, and fine-tuned, by acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture has been shown to help get the electrical impulses that carry messages from the brain to the spinal cord, the nerves, and the muscles working again when they are dysfunctioning. In this way, TCM and acupuncture are understood to be helpful for the treatment of many neurological disorders and progressive degenerative diseases. Neurological problems can be caused by blockage due to varying factors, but the framework of TCM allows us to treat all kinds of blockages with acupuncture.
With acupuncture and herbs, we can also work against muscle atrophy by nourishing the spleen. TCM works to help patients with ALS on many levels.
One case study reported a reduction in ALS symptoms like spasms and muscle cramps, fatigue, low back pain, and dry eyes.
Another case study of a patient with ALS showed distinct improvements in speech, mobility, and breathing ability.
A case study of a patient who, after being treated with riluzole for a period of time, began taking Chinese herbs, showed that she was able to manage her ALS, with less muscle twitching and better ability to tolerate swallowing without choking, over a 12 year period.
Studies have also shown that acupuncture treatment for ALS can help reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract and help improve breathing capability.
Acupuncture Near Me for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Los Angeles Area
ALS is a serious chronic illness that can quickly rob people of their mobility, self-reliance, and quality of life. While there is no cure for ALS, it is possible to slow down the progression of the disease and manage symptoms. The doctors at Art of Wellness have over 35 years of experience helping patients manage degenerative neurological conditions so they can live their best possible life.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.