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Symptom Relief for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

By: Vanessa Vogel Batt L.Ac. MSOM

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is an irreversible neurological disease that destroys the nerve cells that invigorate our muscles. As these cells, also called neurons, weaken and wither, so do the muscles associated with them. Ultimately, this leads to a paralysis of those muscles. Neurons are found in the brain and spinal cord, which comprise the central nervous system (CNS). Early warning symptoms of the disease include weakness and fatigue of the arms or legs, and sometimes difficulty with speaking clearly.

Other symptoms that may appear in early stages of ALS include:

●    Problems with walking, including tripping and dragging the feet
●    Tired and weak feet, ankles and knees
●    Cramping, trembling, and twitching in the arms and shoulders
●    Tongue spasms
●    Difficulty supporting the head in an upright position

In later stages of the disease, more severe symptoms reveal themselves. The muscles responsible for breathing, swallowing and moving the body deteriorate to the point where they can no longer function. There is no known cure as of yet. The causes of ALS are not well understood, but it is accepted that genetics and chemical imbalances within the brain may play a role in developing the disease.

ALS is also called Lou Gehrig's Disease, named after the famous Yankees baseball star. When symptoms worsened and Gehrig could no longer play ball, he is remembered as saying, 'I might have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.' This is a testament to his mind's ability to remain optimistic and engaged in life, despite the steady progression of his physical symptoms.

Acupuncture and Oriental medicine can assist in managing the symptoms of ALS.  The kidneys, are responsible for the production and control of a vital substance called marrow which produces essential components that make up a healthy central nervous system.  According to acupuncture and Oriental medicine the brain is considered a repository for marrow, and is thus termed 'the sea of marrow.'   When the kidneys are deficient, this condition can negatively impact the central nervous system.  Therefore, when kidney deficiency occurs, it is important to nourish and revitalize them, so they can in turn help nourish and revitalize the brain.

In order to better understand this connection, try visualizing the right and left kidneys resting near the base of your spinal cord, roughly at the level of your hips (our kidneys, have a similar shape as that of the kidney bean). Now imagine your kidneys 'giving birth' to the spinal cord, which then rises upwards until it reaches your skull. From there, the spinal cord blossoms into the final product: your brain. In this illustration, the brain and spinal cord are seen as seamless extensions of the kidney.

A few of the symptoms acupuncture and Oriental medicine can provide relief for include muscle weakness and cramping, fatigue and emotional issues. 

Muscle Weakness and Cramping

Weakened muscles in the limbs, neck and even the tongue can feel numb or painful, which can cause uncoordinated and clumsy movements. In some cases, muscle weakness and cramping may be due to the presence of excess heat in the body leading to a condition labeled as dryness.   When this happens, it compromises the quality and quantity of bodily fluids, which includes the blood supply.  Blood suffering from dryness will not have the ability to properly nourish and lubricate the muscles, which increases the chances for pain, cramping and numbness.

Acupuncture points which can help clear excess heat from the body and engender fluids may then be part of the treatment plan.  If a patient is contending with weak and painful arm muscles, needling points on the large intestine channel may be employed. A channel is an invisible pathway on which energy circulates throughout the body.

A particularly effective combination of points which releases pathogenic heat and helps invigorate the muscles of the arm are LI11 and LI4. LI11 is located at the elbow and LI4 is found on the hand, near the thumb. When this pair is needled, they form a powerful circuit of Qi that will benefit the arms. Qi is a fundamental unit of energy, which is indispensable for all life to exist.


Patients that suffer from fatigue may require a general boost in their Qi levels. Fatigue can be experienced as a drop in physical as well as mental energy. According to the philosophy of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, food can be your medicine. To address sagging energy levels, it is best to eat high nutrient foods that are easy to digest such as walnuts and cauliflower. Less energy spent on digestion means more energy for the immune system!

Foods to Boost Energy Levels

Walnuts provide a high-quality protein and plenty of omega-3 fatty acid, also known as the ‘good fat’, that our hearts thrive on. Cauliflower is rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants, protein, vitamin C and a whole array of other nutrients. What makes these foods an excellent choice to help boost physical and mental energy levels is the fact that they contain compounds that specifically support brain health. It’s no coincidence that they both look similar to the human brain!

Other options to consider besides cauliflower include broccoli, cabbage, arugula, kale, daikon and turnips. If you need a drink to help wash down all these good veggies, consider a nice, warm cup of green tea. You’ll give yourself an extra dose of antioxidants and help your body process and break down fats more easily.

Emotional Support

It may be that a patient, especially in the later stages of the disease, experiences depression or anxiety as symptoms increase in severity. The optimism experienced by Lou Gehrig may evade some, but luckily acupuncture and Oriental medicine can help provide relief for mental and emotional problems. There is also help if you need assistance to quit smoking. This is important because smoking is one of the risk factors for developing ALS.

If you experience any of the early symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or currently exhibit more advanced manifestations of the disease, contact your practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine for an appointment.  Treatments are available to assist you with the physical and emotional challenges of this disease.

Find an Acupuncturist near you to learn how acupuncture and Oriental medicine can help you!

About the Author: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM, studied at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and practiced acupuncture and Oriental medicine in New York for several years. Vanessa enjoys traveling the world, and has published articles on acupuncture and Oriental medicine and related health topics for websites and publications in both the U.S. and abroad.

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