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ALS and Massage


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a neurological disorder that can greatly benefit from regular massage.

Motor Neurons are affected by ALS.
Motor Neurons are affected by ALS.

What is ALS?

ALS is a progressive degeneration of upper and lower motor nerves that causes the atrophy (weakening) of muscle tissues. Nerve tissue is replaced by fibrous astrocytes that make the spinal cord hard and scar-like.

ALS kills motor neurons, leading to muscular atrophy.
ALS kills motor neurons, leading to muscular atrophy.

The disease usually affects people 40 to 70 years old, with an average age of diagnosis of 55. Men are slightly more likely to develop ALS than women.

The exact cause of Lou Gehrig’s Disease is unknown. While research has made great strides in slowing the progression of the disease, there is no cure, and the atrophy of skeletal muscles is irreversible.

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis are classified by whether the disease affects spinal nerves or cranial nerves. The areas of the body that are affected is also taken into consideration.

Around 75% of cases are diagnosed as the spinal variation and present with symptoms such as:

  • Loss of fine motor skills in the hands
  • Frequent tripping or stumbling
  • Stiffness and weakness in the extremities

Cranial, or “bulbar” form ALS often presents with:

  • Speech difficulties
  • Problems swallowing
  • Loss of motor control of the tongue.

In both types, nerve damage affects motor neurons and leaves sensory neurons intact, meaning that the person who has the disease has no control over their muscles, but can feel pain and suffer no loss of sensation.

There does not seem to be any effect on intellectual capacity or memory.


A diagnosis must be made by a physician, usually a neurologist, who will conduct several tests. Nerve conduction studies and other examinations will rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.

How Massage Can Help with ALS

ALS is treated with heat, exercise, and physical therapy. Since sensory nerves are left intact, there is a tremendous amount of pain in the skeletal muscles. Massage therapy can help treat this pain by encouraging circulation in muscles that are not being mobilized adequately. Massage can make a profound difference in pain levels. Massage may also help slow the progression of the disease by promoting muscular contractions.

Swedish, Reflexology, Zen Shiatsu, and Deep Tissue modalities are recommended during the early stages of the disease.

Once ALS has progressed to the point where mobility or breathing is affected, hospice or palliative care massage can help improve quality of life.

As with any massage, bodywork should be conducted within the client’s tolerance level.

For more information about ALS, please visit alsfoundation.org.

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