Care at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Our clinic is recognized by the ALS Association as a Certified Treatment Center of Excellence that evaluates and treats ALS and related conditions. About 80 new patients with ALS are diagnosed at the center every year, and more than 230 are followed long-term at any given time.

What is ALS?

In ALS, the cells that control muscles, called motor neurons, waste away and no longer send messages to the muscles. Over time, this leads to the muscles getting weak. The arms, legs, mouth and tongue muscles stop working. When the muscles in the chest stop working, it becomes hard or impossible to breathe.

Causes of ALS

About one out of 10 cases of ALS are inherited because of a flaw in a family’s genes. Having a close family member with ALS raises the chances of having the disease. Other risks include military service and heavy contact with some pesticides (insect killers). In most cases, the cause isn’t known.

What to expect

Patients coming to us for the first time see a neurologist (nervous system doctor) who is an expert in ALS. The goal is to be as sure as possible about a diagnosis.

After doing a series of tests, the neurologist will make an appointment with you, your family and other caregivers to talk about the diagnosis. If you have ALS, the doctor will give information and talk about proven and trial treatments.

An ALS nurse specialist is often at that visit as well. If not, you’ll schedule a follow-up visit with a nurse specialist. The neurologist and nurse work with you and your family on a plan to treat the disease and manage symptoms.

Learn more about the ALS care team.

Groups, Classes & Support

We’re thankful for the support we receive from a variety of sources. Without them, the ALS Clinic couldn’t further its missions.

  • The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter provides very important support in many ways. Our work with the chapter is key to providing services to our patients and their families and caregivers.
  • The Paul and Harriett Campbell Fund for ALS Research provides generous funds to support ALS research at Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Health.
  • The ALS Association national office provides support for our clinical activities. We’ve received a number of ALSA Clinical Management Grants to support our ALS research.
  • The Muscular Dystrophy Association also supports our clinic.

Research & Clinical Trials

We strongly believe that research into what causes ALS and other motor neuron diseases will be the key to more effective treatments and to a cure. We also believe that research can lead to a better understanding of what can help improve quality of life for patients with ALS and their families.

Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey ALS Clinic and Research Center is funded by ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter, Campbell Fund for ALS Research and many other individuals and groups.

We carry out our studies at several levels:

  • Clinical trials of medicines that show promise for treating ALS
  • Clinical research to improve the care and support of patients and their caregivers
  • Basic science research on:
    • Genetics
    • Biomarkers
    • Oxidative stress
    • Iron metabolism
    • Other causes that may explain how ALS develops

To learn more about current clinical trials, visit StudyFinder.

Symptoms, Diagnosis & Outlook

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. The experts at The Penn State Hershey ALS Clinic provide a definite diagnose and offer complete care that helps the person with ALS function as normally as possible and have a better quality of life.

  • Symptoms usually don’t start until after age 50, but they can also start in younger people. People with ALS lose muscle strength and coordination over time. Weakness can first affect the arms or legs, or breathing and swallowing. This gets worse and eventually makes it impossible for them to do normal tasks like going up steps, getting out of a chair, or swallowing.

    ALS doesn’t affect the senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). Most patients are able to think normally, although a small number have dementia, which causes problems with memory.

    Signs that a person may have ALS

    • Trouble breathing
    • Trouble swallowing: choking easily, drooling or gagging
    • Head drop due to weak neck muscles
    • Muscle cramps
    • Muscle stiffness, which is called spasticity
    • Muscle twitching due to small contractions, which is called fasciculations
    • Muscle weakness that starts in one body part, such as the arm or hand, and slowly gets worse until it leads to trouble with lifting, climbing stairs and walking
    • Speech problems, such as a slow or strange speech pattern (slurring of words)
    • Voice changes, hoarseness
    • Weight loss
  • Possible complications of ALS

    • Breathing in food or fluid (aspiration)
    • No longer able to care for self
    • Respiratory (breathing) failure
    • Pneumonia
    • Pressure sores
    • Weight loss

    Over time, people with ALS can’t function and care for themselves. Death often occurs within three to five years after diagnosis. About one in five patients live for more than five years after they’re diagnosed. Some patients live much longer, but they may need help breathing from a ventilator or other device.

  • Patients have a complete examination and their past medical records are reviewed. Using that information, our neurologist orders various tests as needed. These tests may include:

    • Studies of blood and urine
    • X-rays
    • Computed tomography (CT) scans
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

    Most patients will also have electrodiagnostic testing (EMG and nerve conduction tests) in our EMG laboratory. Other tests may include:

    • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
    • Muscle biopsy
    • Nerve biopsy

We can help

To schedule an appointment, please call