Paralysis | Definition and Patient Education


What Is Paralysis?

Paralysis is a loss of muscle function in part of the body. It can be partial or complete, temporary or permanent, and localized or generalized. Most patients feel no pain in the paralyzed areas of their bodies. They also have no control over how those muscles move. Paralysis can affect any part of the body at any time in a person's life.

Types of Paralysis

There are many paralysis classifications. They describe where paralysis is located, how severe it is, and how long it will last.

Localized paralysis affect only one part of the body, such as the face or the hand.

Generalized paralysis is a group of conditions that affect multiple body parts. Types of generalized paralysis include:

  • Monoplegia affects one part of the body.
  • Hemiplegia affects an arm and a leg on the same side of the body.
  • Paraplegia affects both legs.
  • Quadriplegia, or tetraplegia, affects both arms and both legs.

Paralysis may be temporary or permanent. Bell's palsy commonly causes temporary paralysis of the face. Strokes may temporarily paralyze one side of the body.

Flaccid paralysis involves limp muscles, which makes limbs weak. Spastic paralysis involves stiff muscles. In spastic paralysis, muscles may twitch uncontrollably.

What Causes Paralysis?

Some patients are born paralyzed. Others develop paralysis after an accident or medical condition. Common causes of paralysis include:

  • stroke
  • spinal cord injury
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • cerebral palsy
  • post-polio syndrome
  • traumatic brain injury
  • neurofibromatosis
  • birth defects

A study published in 2004 showed that 29 percent of paralysis patients become paralyzed from a stroke. The study also showed that 23 percent of patients become paralyzed from spinal cord injuries (Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation).

What Are the Symptoms of Paralysis?

The symptoms of paralysis are usually easy to identify. A patient will lose feeling in a specific or widespread area. Paralysis will make a muscle difficult or impossible to control. Sometimes tingling or numbing sensations occur before total paralysis of a limb or muscle.

Diagnosing Paralysis

Diagnosing paralysis is often easy because the loss of muscle function is obvious. For internal body parts where paralysis is more difficult to identify, doctors may use X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and other procedures.

A patient with a spinal cord injury may go through myelography. Myelography uses a special dye that is inserted into the nerves in the spinal cord. The dye makes the nerves clearer on X-rays. Doctors may also perform an electromyography, which uses sensors to measure electrical activity in the muscles.

Treating Paralysis

Treatments for paralysis depend on the underlying cause. Examples of treatments include:

  • mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, braces, mobile scooters, and other devices
  • surgery and amputation
  • physical therapy
  • medications, such as Botox or muscle relaxers for patients with spastic paralysis

Paralysis patients may use combinations of the treatments above to improve their conditions. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported a breakthrough in paralysis treatment when a 25-year-old regained feeling in part of his body after undergoing electrical stimulation and intense physical therapy (Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2011).

Paralysis is not treatable in many cases. In such cases, care involves helping patients remain independent.

What Is the Outlook for Paralysis?

Many paralysis patients never regain mobility in their affected area. While there is no cure for many types of paralysis at this time, technological innovations can help improve a patient’s quality of life. Electronic mobility devices and special braces keep paralysis patients moving on their own. Patients may also modify their cars, clothes, and homes to suit their condition. 

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