Poliomyelitis (“polio”) is a severe and potentially life threatening condition caused by the poliovirus. If you had a polio infection as a child and have since recovered, it’s still possible to develop a complication called post-polio syndrome (PPS).

One of the most significant effects of PPS is permanent muscle wasting, which can affect your mobility. PPS shows up much later after recovering from a polio infection, often several decades later. PPS affects an estimated one-quarter to nearly one-half of all people who recover from polio.

If you or a loved one have had a polio infection, it’s important to talk with a doctor about the possibility of developing PPS. Learn more about the possible symptoms of this polio-related complication, and how doctors might diagnose and treat it.

The exact cause of PPS is unknown. Experts think PPS may develop as a result of stress on motor neurons from a previous polio infection. While you might recover from the initial infection, you may still experience a gradual deterioration of these neurons.

At first, you might not have symptoms of post-polio nerve degeneration, since it’s a slow process. This may explain why muscle weakness and other symptoms of PPS develop much later in life.

The symptoms of PPS may begin up to 15 to 40 years after you’ve recovered from an initial poliovirus infection. Possible symptoms include:

Some people with PPS may experience only minor symptoms. Others might experience more severe issues with loss of muscle mass and function.

When to contact a doctor

Contact a doctor about any unexplained fatigue, joint pain, or muscle weakness. If you’ve had polio, be sure to inform your doctor. They might consider PPS as a potential cause of your symptoms.

There’s no single diagnostic tool doctors use to diagnose PPS. A doctor will first perform a physical exam to assess your muscle size and strength, reflexes, and sensation. They may proceed with imaging and other tests if you have:

A doctor will likely want to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, like:

  • recent surgery
  • acute injury
  • an overall lack of physical activity due to other reasons

A doctor will also need to rule out neurological conditions and skeletal abnormalities.

A doctor may use any of the following tests to help them diagnose PPS:

  • CT scan of the spinal cord
  • MRI, which will also provide detailed images of the spine
  • spinal fluid analysis to rule out other medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis
  • muscle biopsy, which involves taking a small sample of muscle tissue and sending it to a lab for further analysis
  • electrophysiological study to assess nerve and muscle function

Currently, there’s no known treatment for PPS. Damage to the affected neurons is irreversible.

But there are steps you can take to help manage symptoms of PPS. These steps may help improve your mobility and overall ability to do everyday tasks.

For example, you may consider using mobility aids, such as orthotic devices. Mechanical reaching tools can help make your daily routine easier and less tiring.

While there’s no medication specifically approved for PPS, a doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs. These can help relieve pain and discomfort in your muscles, joints, and spine.

Additionally, a doctor may recommend individual or family counseling to help you cope with some of the changes you’re experiencing with PPS. You may also consider a support group to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

Lifestyle and diet with post-polio syndrome

If a primary care doctor diagnoses PPS, they may refer you to a neuromuscular specialist, such as a neurologist. A specialist can offer specific lifestyle and dietary modifications to support PPS management.

Possibilities include:

Some people with PPS recover without any long-term complications. Others may experience more serious complications, including:

PPS can also lead to respiratory failure. About 27% to 36% of people with a previous polio infection have breathing problems, such as shortness of breath or sleep apnea.

It’s rare to develop life threatening complications from PPS. But if you develop muscle atrophy or long-term weakness from PPS, it could interfere with your mobility and overall ability to complete everyday tasks on your own.

Your outlook may depend on how severe your original polio symptoms were. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a more severe case of polio when you were younger may lead to more severe PPS.

Only people who have had a previous poliovirus infection develop PPS.

Experts don’t fully understand why some people who had polio develop PPS and others don’t. Studies have suggested that the following factors may increase your risk of PPS:

  • a more severe case of acute polio
  • older age of onset of initial polio infection
  • being assigned female at birth
  • use of mechanical ventilation during the initial infection
  • high levels of physical activity

Due to the unpredictable nature of PPS, there’s no known way to prevent it. But you can make sure to talk with a doctor if you’re experiencing possible PPS symptoms.

The earlier a doctor diagnoses PPS, the sooner you can take steps to manage it.

Is post-polio syndrome contagious?

No. While the poliovirus itself is extremely contagious, PPS is not contagious. It occurs years after the active phase of the viral infection. If you have PPS, you cannot transmit it to someone else.

How many people who survived polio will get post-polio syndrome?

PPS is relatively common in polio survivors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25% to 40% of people who survive polio infection will develop PPS. Some estimates are as high as 85%.

Is post-polio syndrome life threatening?

Unlike polio, PPS is not usually life threatening. But PPS can still pose other risks to your mobility that can reduce daily movements and impact your overall quality of life.

PPS is a condition that develops several years — usually decades — after you recover from a polio infection. While the severity of symptoms may vary, it’s possible to experience a significant loss of muscle and overall weakness.

While the exact cause of PPS is unknown, research is ongoing to discover concrete risk factors, including possible immunological links. This could mean earlier detection of PPS and possible treatments in the future.