Paralysis: Definition and Patient Education
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Paralysis

What is paralysis?

Highlights

  1. Paralysis is a loss of muscle function in part of your body.
  2. It can be temporary or permanent.
  3. The most common causes are stroke, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis.

Paralysis is a loss of muscle function in part of your body. It can be localized or generalized, partial or complete, and temporary or permanent. Paralysis can affect any part of your body at any time in your life. If you experience it, you probably won’t feel pain in the affected areas.

Your treatment plan and outlook will depend on the underlying cause of your paralysis, as well as your symptoms. Technological innovations and therapeutic interventions may help you maintain your independence and quality of life.

What are the symptoms of paralysis?

Symptoms

The symptoms of paralysis are usually easy to identify. If you experience paralysis, you’ll lose feeling in a specific or widespread area of your body. Sometimes, a tingling or numbing sensation can occur before total paralysis sets in. Paralysis will also make it difficult or impossible for you to control muscles in the affected body parts.

What are the types of paralysis?

 Type 1

Doctors can classify paralysis in many different ways:

Location

Localized paralysis affects only one part of your body, such as your face or hand.

Generalized paralysis is a group of conditions that affect multiple body parts. The types include:

  • monoplegia, which affects only one arm or leg
  • hemiplegia, which affects one arm and one leg on the same side of your body
  • paraplegia, which affects both of your legs
  • quadriplegia, or tetraplegia, which affects both of your arms and both of your legs

Severity

If you have partial paralysis, you’ll have some control over the muscles in the affected body parts. If you have complete paralysis, you’ll have no control over the muscles in the affected areas.

Duration

Your paralysis may be temporary. For example, Bell's palsy is a condition that can cause temporary paralysis of your face. Strokes can also temporarily paralyze one side of your body. With time and treatment, you may regain some or all of your feeling and coordination.

In other cases, your paralysis may be permanent.

Flaccid or spastic

Flaccid paralysis causes your muscles to shrink and become flabby. It results in muscle weakness. Spastic paralysis involves tight and hard muscles. It can cause your muscles to twitch uncontrollably, or spasm.

What causes paralysis?

Causes

Some people are born paralyzed. Others develop paralysis due to an accident or a medical condition.

According to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, stroke is the leading cause of paralysis in the United States. It’s responsible for nearly 30 percent of cases. Spinal cord injury accounts for an estimated 23 percent of cases. Multiple sclerosis causes an estimated 17 percent of cases.

Other causes of paralysis include:

  • cerebral palsy
  • post-polio syndrome
  • traumatic brain injury
  • neurofibromatosis
  • birth defects

How is paralysis diagnosed?

Diagnosis

Diagnosing paralysis is often easy, especially when your loss of muscle function is obvious. For internal body parts where paralysis is more difficult to identify, your doctor may use X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or other imaging studies.

If you experience a spinal cord injury, they may use myelography to assess your condition. In this procedure, they’ll insert a special dye into the nerves in your spinal cord. This will help them see your nerves more clearly on X-rays. Your doctor may also perform an electromyography. In this procedure, they’ll use sensors to measure electrical activity in your muscles.

How is paralysis treated?

Treatment

Your treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause of your paralysis, as well your symptoms. For example, your doctor may prescribe:

  • surgery or possible amputation
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, braces, mobile scooters, or other devices
  • medications, such as Botox or muscle relaxers, if you have spastic paralysis

In many cases, paralysis isn’t curable. But your healthcare team can recommend a variety of treatments, tools, and strategies to help you manage your symptoms.

What is the outlook for people with paralysis?

Outlook

Many people with paralysis never regain mobility or sensation in the affected areas of their bodies. But even if your paralysis isn’t curable, your healthcare team can recommend assistive technologies, therapeutic interventions, or other strategies to help improve your quality of life.

For example, special braces and electronic mobility devices may allow you to move independently. Occupational therapists and other professionals can help modify the following to suit your abilities and needs:

  • your clothes
  • your home
  • your car
  • your workplace

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes, medications, surgery, or other treatments to help manage potential complications. 

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific diagnosis, treatment plan, and long-term outlook.

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