PT for ALS photo of Lou Gehrig

By Nick Kossor, SPT

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as “ALS” or “Lou Gherig’s Disease”) is a rare neurological condition that affects the nervous system’s ability to control a person’s muscles. This condition causes a progressive degeneration of the motor neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and spinal cord. Without properly functioning motor neurons, the brain cannot voluntarily control the use of muscles. Furthermore, muscles that do not receive adequate stimulation from neurons start to progressively atrophy and lose function. Specific muscles that can be effected by ALS include muscles that dictate movement, breathing, eating, and speaking.

Symptoms of ALS

There are two types of ALS: familial and sporadic. Sporadic ALS is the more common of the two, and familial ALS is an inherited condition. For both types, symptoms commonly manifest as muscle twitches, cramps, or weakness in the hand, arm, or leg. These initial symptoms often progress to affect simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt, walking, or starting a car. Other symptoms include dysarthria (trouble speaking) or dysphagia (trouble swallowing). It is important to note that since ALS is a disease that affects motor function, higher level cognitive function is retained. This is important because those with ALS are aware of their progressive loss of function, which may heighten feelings of depression and/or anxiety.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Energy conservation

Fatigue is a major factor for those with ALS. Physical therapy can educate a patient on the most mechanically efficient ways to move your body to maximize independence.

Safe movement patterns

Safety is always a concern for all patients. Physical therapy can teach ALS patients proper lifting techniques and target specified regions of the body that present with less than optimal muscle synergies (movement patterns). This can be achieved by correcting posture and educating how to activate core/stabilizing muscles.


Physical therapy for ALS can provide exercises that can combat the progression of muscular atrophy and maintain strength/endurance in unaffected muscles.


Physical therapists are movement specialist. They can treat areas of the body where motion is restricted to decrease pain and restore optimized movement.


Physical therapists are skilled at teaching patients how to position their bodies (either statically or dynamically) in a way that prevents painful contractures or spasms. This can be accomplished by teaching bed mobility or proper transfer techniques.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is just one of the conditions that Capital Area PT therapists can provide assessment and treatment for. For additional information, contact our physical therapy clinics in Malta – Saratoga Springs at 518-289-5242 , or Queensbury – Glens Falls at 518-289-5242.