Nowadays there is considerable confusion between Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Most people think it is the same disease but in fact, they are very different, even though both are neurodegenerative diseases and have “sclerosis” in their name. As a result, we wanted to briefly explain the main differences between these diseases:
MS is an autoimmune disease that is possibly caused by a virus or an unknown antigen. In this case, the body’s immune system attacks the myelin—a substance that wraps around nerve fibers and permits the transmission of nerve impulses at an adequate rate—which results in poor electrical communication between neurons, causing numerous symptoms which we will describe below.
ALS, on the other hand, affects the nerve cells that control voluntary movements in both the brain and the spinal cord, meaning this disease only affects the motor system. Its cause is also unknown.
The most common symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis are visual disturbances, balance problems, speech problems, tremors or hand shaking, muscle weakness in arms or legs, and loss of muscle strength. Other symptoms that generally occur are cognitive impairments in memory, encoding and retrieval of information, and emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, as mentioned before, patients with ALS only suffer from motor symptoms. Voluntary muscle action becomes affected, there is weakness in arms and legs, and speech difficulties and trouble swallowing. It is necessary to emphasize the severity of this disease since patients can eventually develop respiratory muscle dysfunction; as a result, patients with ALS live from 3 to 5 years after their diagnosis.
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Currently there is no cure for either condition but treatments can help slow both diseases and ease their symptoms.
In both, treatment consists of drugs that slow the progression of the disease in combination with sessions of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
In addition, in Multiple Sclerosis, the neuropsychologist is fundamental for addressing cognitive deficits that develop in the disease course.
About 85% of MS patients develop periodic relapses followed by periods of remission (relapsing-remitting MS). Relapses affect all types of patients with symptoms lasting for 24-72 hours before fading away. Many times symptoms even disappear altogether which, however, does not prevent these patients from deteriorating as a result of each attack. The other 15% of MS patients show slow and gradual worsening from onset (primary progressive form).
In contrast, ALS always progresses at a steady rate, although the rate of deterioration may vary from patient to patient.
MS and ALS affect gender differently
Multiple Sclerosis affects mainly women between the ages of 20 and 40, and in its primary progressive form, affects mainly men between the ages of 50 and 60.
ALS usually strikes between the ages of 40 and 70, and is more common in men, by a ratio of 3 to 1.