Is There a Link Between Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Physical Trauma?

According to a story from News Amed, Rob Burrow gained fame as a star player for the Leeds Rhinos, a professional rugby team. After a distinguished career, Rob retired from the sport in 2017 and instead took a position as a coach for the team’s reserves. However, Mr. Burrow’s life was turned upside down when he was recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at just 37 years old. 

About Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a rare, degenerative disease that causes the death of nerve cells associated with the voluntary muscles. Little is known about the origins of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, with no definitive cause in about 95 percent of cases. The remaining five percent appear to inherit the disease from their parents. Symptoms initially include loss of coordination, muscle weakness and atrophy, muscle stiffness and cramping, and trouble speaking, breathing, or swallowing. These symptoms worsen steadily over time; most patients die because of respiratory complications. Treatment is mostly symptomatic and the medication riluzole can prolong life. Life expectancy after diagnosis ranges from two to four years, but some patients can survive for substantially longer. To learn more about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, click here.

Is Physical Trauma a Risk Factor?

The fatal diagnosis for Rob raises several questions. First and foremost, it is unusual for someone of such a young age to be diagnosed with the disease. When we take this into consideration it is possible that he has a rare variant of the illness that begins earlier and progresses more slowly; this is similar to the form of the disease that affected the renowned scientist Stephen Hawking.

Another factor that should be accounted for is Rob’s career in rugby, a high contact sport that poses a significant risk of injury. Could this have somehow played a role in triggering the appearance of the disease? There have been some prior studies that have suggested prior physical injury or head trauma as a potential risk factor, but at this juncture, those connections remain unclear.

Regardless, Rob Burrow’s diagnosis should serve as a wake-up call for the scientific community to investigate the relationship between amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and physical trauma/injury more extensively. 

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