If you’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine, you may have experienced side effects like soreness at the injection site, headache, and fever. These are all common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.

You may have also come across information about people experiencing paralysis after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. While this has certainly been documented, it’s also very rare.

It’s important to know that the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh the risks of rare side effects. COVID-19 has resulted in more than 6 million deaths worldwide. Vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization, serious illness, and death from a COVID-19 infection.

Continue reading below to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and paralysis.

There are several potential causes of paralysis following a COVID-19 vaccine. We’ll explore each of them in more detail below.

However, before we get started, it’s important to reiterate that experiencing paralysis after a COVID-19 vaccine is exceedingly rare. Of the millions of doses administered globally, only a tiny percentage of people reported paralysis.

Overall, the benefits of vaccination in protecting against serious illness and death due to COVID-19 outweigh the risks that may be associated with the vaccines.

Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) happens when your immune system attacks parts of your peripheral nervous system, which are the nerves located outside of your brain and spinal cord. This can lead to weakness and paralysis.

What exactly causes GBS is unknown. However, many times, it starts following a viral infection. In very rare situations, GBS has also been documented following vaccination.

In the United States, GBS has mainly been associated with the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine is different from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines in that it uses an adenovirus vector.

A 2022 study found that the rate of GBS in the first 21 days after receiving the J&J vaccine was almost 21 times higher than for mRNA vaccines. There was no increased risk of GBS after vaccination with mRNA vaccines.

GBS can affect anyone at any age. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that most cases of GBS after the J&J vaccine have been reported in men ages 50 and over.

The elevated risk of GBS is one of the reasons why the CDC recommends mRNA vaccines over the J&J vaccine. mRNA vaccines are also more effective than the J&J vaccine.

Bell’s palsy

Bell’s palsy is a type of temporary facial paralysis that typically affects one side of the face. The exact cause of Bell’s palsy is unknown, but inflammation or swelling affecting the facial nerve plays a role.

Bell’s palsy has most often been reported after the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. These are the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both large-scale clinical trials for these vaccines reported rare occurrences of Bell’s palsy:

  • In the Pfizer-BioNTech trials, out of 43,252 participants, four people in the vaccine group had Bell’s palsy, compared to no individuals in the control group.
  • In the Moderna trials, out of 30,350 trial participants, three people in the vaccine group had Bell’s palsy as well as one individual in the control group.

However, more recent research hasn’t linked the mRNA vaccines with an increased risk of Bell’s palsy. Further, another 2021 study found that there’s a higher risk of Bell’s palsy after having COVID-19 than after getting vaccinated.

Transverse myelitis

Transverse myelitis happens when the spinal cord becomes inflamed. The condition causes symptoms that affect the body in a band-like pattern and can include weakness, pain, and sensory changes.

Transverse myelitis happens due to damage to nerve fibers in the spinal cord. While the cause of some cases can remain unknown, a variety of factors may cause transverse myelitis to develop, including:

  • autoimmune activity, which can include:
    • autoimmune responses after an infection or vaccination
    • autoimmune activity due to a cancer
  • infections
  • inflammatory conditions that affect the spinal cord

There have been case reports of transverse myelitis occurring after COVID-19 vaccination.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are represented in these reports. Most, but not all, of these individuals were older in age.

Transverse myelitis has also been reported after the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which, like the J&J vaccine, uses an adenovirus vector. However, this vaccine isn’t currently authorized for use in the United States.

As we mentioned, documented occurrences of transverse myelitis after COVID-19 vaccination have largely been limited to case reports and series. Compared to the number of vaccine doses administered globally, this effect is very rare.

In fact, a 2021 case report noted that, as of April 21, 2021, only 45 reports of transverse myelitis after COVID-19 vaccination had been reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

Neuralgic amyotrophy

Neuralgic amyotrophy is a rare condition that involves pain and progressive weakness in the shoulder and arm. It’s also called Parsonage-Turner syndrome.

Neuralgic amyotrophy is believed to be caused by an abnormal inflammatory response of the immune system. Some factors that have been linked to the condition include:

  • infections, particularly viral infections
  • recent vaccination
  • injury or trauma
  • existing autoimmune conditions

Similar to transverse myelitis, reports of neuralgic amyotrophy after the COVID-19 vaccine are limited to several case studies. It’s been reported after all three of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved or authorized in the United States.

The symptoms of paralysis to be aware of after a COVID-19 vaccine can depend on the cause. Let’s break these down now.

Guillain-Barré syndrome

The potential symptoms of GBS are:

  • tingling in the hands or feet
  • weakness in the legs that eventually spreads to the upper body
  • impaired movement and coordination
  • difficulty with chewing and swallowing
  • trouble breathing
  • problems with bowel and bladder control
  • changes in heart rate or blood pressure

Bell’s palsy

The symptoms of Bell’s palsy can include:

  • facial weakness or paralysis that often impacts one side of the face and comes on suddenly
  • trouble with blinking or making facial expressions
  • drooping of the mouth
  • drooling
  • changes in tearing
  • difficulty eating and drinking
  • changes to your sense of taste
  • increased sensitivity to loud noise
  • facial pain

Transverse myelitis

The symptoms of transverse myelitis may include:

  • weakness or paralysis of the legs and arms that develops over a period of hours to days
  • pain that typically starts in the lower back and radiates into the legs, arms, or torso
  • changes in sensation, such as feelings of pins and needles, burning, or numbness
  • problems with bowel and bladder control

Neuralgic amyotrophy

If you develop neuralgic amyotrophy, you may experience:

  • shoulder or arm pain that comes on suddenly, often affecting only one side of the body
  • progressive muscle weakness or atrophy in the affected area
  • reduced reflexes
  • loss of sensation in the affected area

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor right away if you begin to experience any general symptoms of paralysis, such as muscle weakness or numbness and tingling, after a COVID-19 vaccine.

If your symptoms are severe or are getting worse rapidly, call 911 or go to the emergency room.

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According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 70 percent of people with GBS have a full recovery.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) treatment

Several treatments can be used for GBS, including:

Bell’s palsy treatment

The outlook for Bell’s palsy is typically quite good. The condition is temporary and most people recover the function of their facial muscles within 6 months. When started shortly after symptoms begin, steroids can help with recovery.

Transverse myelitis treatment

While many people do recover from transverse myelitis, it can sometimes take months to years. Treatment is similar to that of GBS, often involving plasma exchange or immunoglobulin therapy, steroids, and physical therapy.

Neuralgic amyotrophy treatment

The treatment of neuralgic amyotrophy can involve pain management, steroids, and physical therapy.

While it can resolve on its own, its outlook varies greatly between individuals. About 10 to 20 percent of people may experience lingering pain or difficulty exercising the affected arm.

Paralysis has been documented after COVID-19 vaccines. However, it happens only rarely. Overall, the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the potential risks associated with vaccination.

Be sure to raise any concerns that you may have about COVID-19 vaccines to your doctor. They can help to address any questions you may have.

If you do begin to experience symptoms of paralysis after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, contact your doctor right away. Prompt treatment can help to improve the chances of having a full recovery.