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MS vs. ALS: What’s the Difference?

By Daryl H. Bryant (619 words)
Posted in Living with MS on April 11, 2019

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MS vs. ALS: What’s the Difference?

Learning you have an autoimmune disease can be scary. Autoimmune conditions that affect the nervous system can be confusing due to similar symptoms.

Many people confuse Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Both diseases affect the same area of the body (brain and spinal cord), which is why both have the word “sclerosis” in the name. Both conditions also affect motor skills and brain function - people affected with MS or ALS often have similar early symptoms such as difficulty walking, impaired cognition, slurred speech, and even depression. Last, neither disease currently has a cure.

These conditions are unique and provide vastly different outcomes for a person facing a diagnosis. Here are four ways MS and ALS differ.


Both MS and ALS have the word “sclerosis” in the name, but they are two vastly different diagnoses. MS is considered an autoimmune condition because the body attacks a part of the brain and spinal cord, but symptoms can extend to other parts of the body as well. ALS is a progressive neurological disease that attacks only the brain and spinal cord, eventually causing paralysis.


Although anyone can be diagnosed with either disease, both are more likely to occur in adulthood. MS is most frequently diagnosed among women ages 20 - 40, while ALS is more common in men over the age of 50. MS is also much more common than ALS, with about 400,000 people living with MS versus approximately 20,000 people who have ALS.


MS is unpredictable in that it affects each person differently. Some people live with minimal flares while others are vastly affected and must change their lifestyles. Therefore, treatments vary depending on what the patient needs.

Most commonly, people with MS will have a treatment plan that includes a combination of medication and physical therapy. There are a variety of medications that can help manage MS symptoms, from oral steroids to injectable or infusion treatments. Physical therapy can help you learn how to perform daily tasks and use assistive devices when needed. Last, diet and lifestyle changes can help minimize flares. With the right combination of medication and lifestyle changes, some people can live a symptom-free life and even reverse some of the damage caused by MS.

Because ALS is a progressive disease, it affects nearly every person in the same manner. The goal of treatment is not to reverse damage, but to slow damage, extend the lifespan, and provide the best possible quality of life. Your doctor will prescribe a medication to help slow the progression of ALS, and may also prescribe other medications to provide relief from other symptoms. Last, people with ALS often undergo a variety of therapies to help manage symptoms - these include breathing treatments, physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, and other supportive treatments as needed.

Life Expectancy

Multiple Sclerosis is rarely fatal. Someone with a diagnosis of MS can expect to live a productive life, with lifestyle modifications to help manage your condition. On average, a person with MS lives about seven years less than the average expected lifespan.

ALS, however, is 100% fatal. People who have ALS typically live up to five years after their diagnosis and will experience a decline in quality of life which will eventually lead to paralysis. However, new research and treatment is helping some patients live longer and improve their quality of life.

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with MS, ALS, or another chronic condition, it’s important to educate yourself, develop a treatment plan, and build a support system that includes your medical team, family, and friends. The more you know about your diagnosis, the more equipped you are to manage the days and treatments to come.

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