Breaking Down The Ice Bucket Challenge: Understanding ALS and Its Link to Sports

Athletic trainers are often all too familiar with ice and ice baths so when the phenomenon known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started to take social media by storm I knew it was only a matter of time before a direct challenge was thrown my way. Of course a vengeful athlete who I had previously required to recover in an ice bath jumped at the chance.

However I was shocked at how little the people willingly dumping frigid water on each other actually know about the disease. I agreed to make a donation, soak myself, and help raise awareness for those afflicted with ALS. For a guy who makes a living analyzing and breaking down injuries and illness I’m electing to use my platform to help people better understand the disease behind the trend.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a degenerative disease that attacks the spinal cord and the nerve cells of the brain. There are multiple types of neurons in the brain and throughout the body, including sensory and motor. Sensory neurons aid in the transmission of information linked to an individual’s senses like sight and sound. Motor neurons, as their name suggests, are involved with muscle movement. Some motor neutrons work involuntarily as muscles in the heart and digestive system act automatically and without a direct command. Other motor neurons depend on an individual choosing to act and are considered voluntary. These nerve cells come into play when you get out of bed, swing a baseball bat, or jump to snag rebound. Voluntary nerve cells also play a role in breathing.

ALS targets the voluntary motor neurons and causes them to degenerate. As a result, neurons can no longer perform their job and muscles can no longer function. A loss of function results in the muscle atrophying. Over time the degenerated neurons can be so ravaged by the disease that the affected individual becomes paralyzed. Victims in the latter stages of the disease begin to lose control of vital functions like swallowing and breathing.

Sadly ALS currently has no known cure. Medications, specifically a drug known as riluzole, can help slow the progression of the disease in its early stages but is unable to stop the degeneration from occurring. Research and education on the disease is ongoing and that’s where the numerous donations collected by the Ice Bucket Challenge come into play.

The sports world has been historically linked to ALS ever since Yankees great Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with the condition in 1939. ALS forced Gehrig into retirement and claimed his life just two years later. The attention Gehrig’s diagnoses brought the condition is why ALS is often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Since Gehrig’s death in 1941 numerous other athletes have succumb or been diagnosed with ALS including former Cy Young Winner James “Catfish” Hunter and NBA Hall of Famer George Yardley. The Ice Bucket Challenge was even started by an athlete, former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates.

ALS has hit the NFL particularly hard with multiple players receiving diagnoses within the last decade. Included on that list is former Tennessee Titan Tim Shaw who recently revealed his diagnosis on the team’s website. Scientists and researchers are currently looking to any potential links between traumatic brain injuries sustained in sports and ALS and other neurodegenerative disease.

The outpour of support from current and former players from the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB has been impressive with millions of dollars being raised. However the Ice Bucket Challenge is more than a silly fad that should be quickly forgotten. Making a donation will not only aid people currently dealing with ALS but it can also help fund research that could go toward treating and potentially preventing the disease. has accepted the challenge and hope that you pair each bucket of ice water with a donation at


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Identifying Potential Health Risks in the 2014 NBA Draft

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Joel Embiid, Center, University of Kansas

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