ALS From Both Sides


The Right Calcium Supplement in ALS


As improved care options and, hopefully, treatment advances extend the life expectancy of ALS patients, more of us will need to address long term problems such as osteoporosis. As we enter middle age, we are constantly reminded of the need for calcium to prevent osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs in immobilized people as well as in older people. The ALS patient needs to understand the processes at work because the standard treatments for age-related osteoporosis are not helpful and potentially harmful for the disabled.


Bones and Calcium

Bone is living tissue that is continually being broken down and replaced. Up to age 30, more bone is formed than lost, but after age 30 that changes. Although we continue to replace bone, we have an overall net loss of bone mass. That loss is normally very gradual but is sped up by some factors. It is affected by race, heredity, body type, age, and especially by gender. Women have more bone loss than men because of hormonal changes that occur with menopause. Diet and smoking have an effect on bone loss, and lack of exposure to sunlight can prevent absorption of calcium from the food we eat. Another factor is decreased exercise. That is a small but important factor for the typical osteoporosis patient, but is the major factor for the long term ALS patient.

The trigger that makes bone absorb calcium and keep itself strong is stress on the bone. Exercise, especially exercise that involves bearing weight on the bone, stimulates the bone to absorb calcium and rebuild itself. When we are immobilized, calcium continues to be slowly lost from the bone in the normal way but is not replaced because the trigger to replace it - exercise - is gone. In disabled people, the problem is not that we lose bone mass faster, it is that we fail to replace it. The result is osteoporosis - weak, brittle bones that break more easily. That is a real problem for ALS patients as we are prone to falls.

For the immobilized patient there is another problem seldom discussed in the literature on osteoporosis because it is so oriented to the osteoporosis of aging: The calcium being lost from the bones and not being reused to rebuild bones but ends up circulating in the blood. Lab tests of blood calcium will show abnormally high levels. (There may be some cellular problem with the use of calcium that leads or contributes to the loss of motor neurons, but the high calcium levels seen in ALS patients is NOT a cause of ALS but a result of the immobility ALS causes.)

The kidneys will filter out calcium and excrete the excess, but, in time, the kidneys will get "clogged up" with calcium. Kidney stones will form and all the problems associated with kidney stones can occur. This is a not uncommon in the general population and it is a very common problem for spinal cord injured patients. For ALS patients this has rarely been a problem simply because life expectancy is shorter than the time needed to develop kidney stones. Long term ALS patients may face this problem however.


Treatment

Although early diagnosing of osteoporosis is difficult, when a person with ALS shows up in the Emergency room with a fracture from what should have been a "survivable" fall (one not causing broken bones) it is logical to assume that there is a significant amount of osteoporosis present. But what is the proper treatment? This is where the literature leads us (and sometimes our doctors) astray. Applying standard treatments for osteoporosis to ALS patients may cause worse problems. The standard treatments are:

In summary, ALS patients are prone to osteoporosis and the resultant brittle bones, but it is related to their inability to exercise as much or more than the typical factors of aging. Blood calcium levels will already be high, and additional calcium won't help and may even be harmful long term. ALS patients can best combat osteoporosis by getting what exercise they can (and for us, simply being held up in a standing position is the weight bearing exercise needed), and by making certain we have an adequate amount of Vitamin D by getting a little sunshine. If further treatment is needed, discuss with your doctor whether his proposed treatment that will get the calcium into the bones, not just into the bloodstream.

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