The legendary wide receiver for the San Francisco 49er’s, Dwight Clark, reveals that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The 60 year old first noticed weakness in his left hand in September 2015.
In a blog post, Clark suspects his diagnosis was caused by his 9 years in the NFL. The two-time all-pro and Super Bowl champion stated, “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did.” He continued, “And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
He wrote that he couldn’t run, play golf or walk any distances, and that lifting anything greater than 30lbs was a “chore”.
What is ALS?
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was first discovered in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Known as “the Father of Neurology”, he and is colleagues discovered that spinal cord lesions, depending on where they occurred, would present differently in a patient as his paralysis progressed. Even though it was named ALS by the 1870’s, many still refer to it as “Charcot’s disease”.
In 1939, baseball Yankee legend, Lou Gherig was diagnosed with ALS. Two weeks later he retired, giving his famous farewell speech. It began with “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” For most of the nation this was the first time they heard of the disease, and Lou Gherig died two years later. Today people still refer to the disease as “Lou Gherig’s Disease”.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the death of neurons responsible for innervating muscles. When the muscles do not receive nerve signals, they eventually weaken, twitch, and then atrophy. Muscle atrophy leaves a patient unable to move and eventually the patient cannot speak, eat and breathe. Most people affected with ALS die of respiratory failure.
Image from Reactive Training Systems
Could head trauma cause ALS?
As Dwight Clark alluded to, head trauma has been suspected in some cases of ALS. In 2010 a study out of Boston University discussed the abnormal protein called TDP-43. Dr. Ann McKee, associate professor of Neurology and Pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine found high levels of this protein in the brain and spinal cord of two former professional football players and a former boxer who sustained repeated head trauma and all developed ALS.
Another study in 2007 found an 11 X increased risk of ALS among Italian soccer players who had suffered multiple head injuries when compared to those who never sustained head trauma.
An additional study found that those who served in the military were at higher risk of ALS. Genetics and smoking may also play roles. Another theory is glutamate, a chemical messenger in the brain, which appears high in those with ALS, could be affecting the nerve cells as well.
Approximately 15,000 Americans have ALS. There is currently no cure. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” fortunately raised over $115 million for research of the devastating disease.
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Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician