If You Notice This While Eating, It May Be an Early Sign of ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive neurological disease that affects voluntary muscle movement. As motor neurons die in ALS patients, they stop sending messages to the muscles, until they begin to weaken, twitch, and atrophy over time. This means that ALS patients tend to suffer from severe difficulty with everyday tasks such as walking, talking, and eating, just to name a few.

While there have been some well-known individuals who lived with ALS, like Stephen Hawking and Lou Gehrig, it is considered a rare disease, affecting roughly 30,000 Americans at any given time. Sadly, those with ALS typically live just three to five years following their diagnosis, with just 10 percent of patients surviving 10 years or more, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Experts say that though there is no cure for ALS, recognizing the signs can lead to interventions that may slow the progression of the disease. Read on to find out which symptom you may notice while eating, and what to do if you suspect a problem.

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Difficulty swallowing is a common sign of ALS.

As ALS affects the motor neurons, the nerve cells that control muscle movements, many patients experience difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia. This can lead to increased incidences of choking or aspiration due to the weakening of certain throat muscles that are responsible for protecting the airway.

This can be doubly dangerous because when a healthy individual begins to choke or aspirate, the body automatically produces a coughing response. In ALS patients, muscle weakness and stiffness can impair that response. Without a productive cough, some patients struggle to clear their airways for safe breathing.

While difficulty swallowing typically occurs in the later stages of the disease, there is one type of ALS for which dysphagia is considered an early symptom.

If you have Bulbar ALS, difficulty swallowing may be among your first symptoms.

Roughly 30 percent of people with ALS have something known as Bulbar ALS. In this particular classification of the disease, motor neurons are destroyed in the brainstem during in the early stages, causing a swift disease progression and faster onset symptoms in the muscles of the face, head, and neck. For this reason, "muscles involved in breathing, speaking, and swallowing are usually affected first in this form of ALS," explains ALS News Today.

According to the ALS Society of Canada, 86 percent of patients with Bulbar ALS experience difficulty swallowing as an early symptom. Nearly the same percentage of all ALS patients eventually experience difficulty swallowing, though the symptom typically occurs later in the progression of their disease.

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Look for these other symptoms of Bulbar ALS.

If you're concerned that you may have Bulbar ALS, you should become familiar with its other early symptoms. These include slurred or altered speech, difficulty chewing, choking while eating or drinking, and weakness or twitching in the muscles of the face, jaw, throat and voice box, or tongue.

A timely diagnosis is key.

While there is no Bulbar ALS-specific diagnostic test, and no known cure for the disease, experts say that a timely diagnosis is essential for your prognosis. According to the ALS Association, a drug called Riluzole—also known as Rilutek—can help slow the progression of the disease and extend ALS patients' longevity.

"It takes on average about nine to 12 months for someone to be diagnosed with ALS, from the time they first begin to notice symptoms," Edward Kasarskis, MD, PhD, director of the ALS Center at the University of Kentucky Neuroscience Center, writes for the ALS Association. The process involves ruling out other conditions through physical examinations, consultations with specialists, blood tests, MRIs, and more. If you suspect your symptoms could be ALS, speak with your doctor today.

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