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What is Paralysis?

Paralysis is the complete loss of muscle function for one or more muscle groups. Paralysis can cause loss of feeling or loss of mobility in the affected area.

Paralysis could be localized, or generalized, or it may follow a certain pattern. Most paralyses caused by nervous system damage (i.e. spinal cord injuries) are constant in nature; however, there are forms of periodic paralysis, including sleep paralysis, which are caused by other factors.

Muscle is a special kind of tissue that enables our bodies to move. It is under the control of the nervous system, which processes messages to and from all parts of the body. Sometimes the nerve cells, or neurons, that control the muscles become diseased or injured. When that happens, a person loses the ability to move the muscles voluntarily, and we say that the person is paralyzed.

Paralysis of the muscles of the face, arm, and leg on one side of the body is called hemiplegia ("hemi" means "half") and usually results from damage to the opposite side of the brain. Damage to the nerves of the spinal cord affects different parts of the body, depending on the amount of damage and where it occurred. Paralysis of both lower limbs is called paraplegia, and paralysis of both arms and both legs is called quadriplegia. Paralysis may be temporary or permanent, depending on the disease or injury. Because paralysis can affect any muscle in the body, a person may lose not only the ability to move but also the ability to talk or to breathe unaided.

How Does a Person Become Paralyzed?

Physical injury—for example, sports or car accidents—poisoning, infection, blocked blood vessels, and tumors can all cause paralysis. Defects

Left to right: Spinal cord showing regions (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, etc.) and nerves; hemiplegia; paraplegia; and quadriplegia.
in the developing brain of the fetus or brain injury during birth can cause a paralytic condition known as cerebral palsy. In diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammation scars the nerves, interrupting communication between the brain and the muscles. Sometimes the muscle tissue itself is affected. In muscular dystrophy, deterioration of the muscle tissue of the arms and legs causes increasing weakness.
Guillain-Barre (gee-YAN ba-RAY) syndrome is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's own cells attack the insulation and core of the nerve fibers, beginning in the hands and feet. In myasthenia gravis (my-es-THEE-nee-a GRA-vis), another autoimmune disorder, a chemical malfunction disrupts the communication needed for muscles to contract.

In rare cases, no physical cause for paralysis can be found. Psychologists call this condition a conversion disorder—that is, a person converts his or her psychological anxiety into physical symptoms of paralysis, but nerve and muscle function are still intact.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of paralysis vary. When the spinal cord is crushed, as in Sang Lan's injury, a person is immediately paralyzed and loses feeling in the affected limbs. When damage to the muscles or central nervous system is caused by a progressive disease or disorder, such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, symptoms are gradual and often start with muscle fatigue and weakness. With poliomyelitis (PO-le-o-my-e-LY-tis) and stroke, paralysis comes on suddenly, with little or no warning.


Information about symptoms and their onset helps the doctor pinpoint the cause of paralysis. With certain genetic diseases that are inherited, such as muscular dystrophy, family medical history provides important clues.

Is Paralysis Treatable?

Aside from poliomyelitis (which can be prevented by vaccination) and brain and spinal cord injuries (which in some cases can be prevented by using appropriate safety measures), it is usually not possible to prevent the conditions that cause paralysis, and most of the time there is no specific treatment. Steroid medications are sometimes given at the time of spinal cord injury to reduce inflammation in an attempt to limit the amount of damage to the spinal nerves. For people with paralysis who must use wheel-chairs, treatment emphasizes exercises and special care to avoid infections and pressure sores. Patients with myasthenia gravis may be offered a drug that helps their muscles contract. Most people with Guillain-Barre syndrome recover on their own. Conversion disorder can be difficult to treat; the underlying psychological problem must be addressed.


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