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Paralysis is loss of the ability to move one or more muscles. It may be associated with loss of feeling and other bodily functions.
Paralysis is not usually caused by problems with the muscles themselves, but by problems with the nerves or spinal cord that the brain uses to control muscles. Therefore, a person with paralysis will usually have some form of nerve damage.
Paralysis can either be localised, where a specific section of the body, such as the face or hand, is paralysed, or it can be generalised, where a larger area of the body is affected.
There are also a number of medical terms used to describe different types of paralysis. For example:
Read more about how paralysis is classified.
The three most common causes of paralysis are:
Read more about the causes of paralysis.
The type and extent of paralysis will determine the impact it has on a person's quality of life and day-to-day activities.
For example, a person who has lower limb paralysis (paraplegia) will usually be able to lead a relatively independent and active life, using a wheelchair to carry out their daily activities.
However, a person with paralysis that affects both their arms and their legs (tetraplegia/quadriplegia) will need a great deal of support and it is unlikely they will be able to live without a dedicated carer.
Paralysis can also cause a number of associated secondary conditions, such as urinary incontinence (an inability to control the flow of urine) and bowel incontinence (where stools leak uncontrollably from the back passage). It may also affect sexual function in both men and women.
Generally, there is currently no cure for paralysis except in certain conditions. Therefore, in cases of permanent paralysis treatment aims to:
Mobility aids, such as wheelchairs and orthoses, can help a person with paralysis.
Manual wheelchairs are designed for people with good upper body strength. Electric wheelchairs are designed for people with poor upper body muscle strength or paralysis in all four limbs.
Read more about wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
Orthoses are an alternative to wheelchairs. They are braces made of metal or plastic and designed to improve the function of a limb and compensate for muscle weakness.
Paralysis, particularly if it is unexpected, can be a devastating and traumatic experience. Unsurprisingly, many people who are paralysed experience depression.
However, research has shown most people with paralysis are eventually able to come to terms with the condition.
Paralysis can be classified in a number of different ways. For example, it can be localised, affecting a particular part of the body, or generalised, affecting a wider area.
Examples of localised paralysis include:
Examples of generalised paralysis include:
Paralysis can either be temporary or permanent.
Bell's palsy is a relatively common cause of temporary paralysis that causes temporary facial paralysis. Sometimes, paralysis that occurs after a stroke can also be temporary.
Paralysis caused by serious injury, such as a broken neck, is usually permanent.
Paralysis can be:
Paralysis can be:
People with spastic paralysis may experience muscle weakness with spasms (involuntary muscle contractions). People with flaccid paralysis often experience muscle weakness without spasms.
When assessing the extent of a spinal cord injury, it is a case of determining where on the spine the injury occurred, and how badly related nerves and muscles have been affected.
The spinal cord is measured using a number and lettering system based on the vertebrae (disc-shaped bones that help support the spine and neck).
Your spine is made up of 24 vertebrae in total, consisting of:
People with a spinal cord injury between the C1 and C7 are likely to have paralysis in all four limbs (tetraplegia).
The extent of the paralysis and subsequent loss of muscle function will depend on how high up the injury occurred. For example:
The four most common causes of paralysis are stroke, head injury, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.
A stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to your brain is disturbed.
Like all organs, to function properly the brain needs a constant supply of blood that contains oxygen and nutrients.
If the blood supply is restricted or stopped, brain cells will begin to die, which can lead to brain damage that often results in paralysis.
Read more about stroke.
A severe head injury can cause brain damage. The brain's surface can tear or bruise as it bumps against the skull, damaging blood vessels and nerves.
Paralysis can occur if a part of the brain that controls specific muscles is damaged during a severe head injury. Damage to the left side of the brain can cause paralysis on the right side of the body, and damage to the right side of the brain can cause paralysis on the left side of the body.
Read more about severe head injury.
The spinal cord is part of your central nervous system. It is a thick bundle of nerves that runs from your brain, down through the neck and spine, inside a canal of vertebrae.
Its main function is to transmit signals to and from the brain and body. For example, the spinal cord passes nerve signals, such as hot or cold sensations, back to the brain.
If the neck or spine is injured, the spinal cord can also be damaged. This means the brain may no longer be able to transmit signals to the muscles, causing paralysis.
The exact location where the spinal injury occurs can have a significant effect on how severe and wide- ranging the paralysis is. The higher up the spine the injury occurs, the worse the paralysis will be.
For example, an injury in the middle of the spine will usually cause paraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs). A neck injury, such as a broken neck, will usually result in tetraplegia (paralysis in all four limbs, also known as quadriplegia), as well as a loss of normal lung function, which means the person will need to use a ventilator to breathe.
Read more about how the level of spinal cord injury is determined.
The most common causes of spinal cord injury are:
The nature of these causes means that most spinal cord injuries occur in men (who account for 80% of all cases) and younger people. An estimated half of all spinal cord injuries occur in people who are 16-30 years of age.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition where nerve fibres in the spinal cord become damaged by the immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness).
The immune system mistakenly attacks a substance called myelin, which surrounds nerve fibres and helps with the transmission of nerve signals. In MS, the myelin around the nerve fibres becomes damaged, which disturbs the messages coming to and from the brain. This can result in paralysis.
Read more about multiple sclerosis.
There are also a number of less common causes, these are listed below.
Cancers that develop in the brain, such as a high-grade brain tumour, can cause paralysis, usually on one side of the body.
Alternatively, cancers can spread (metastasis) from other parts of the body into the brain or spinal cord, leading to paralysis.
Cerebral palsy is a set of neurological conditions (those that affect the brain and nervous system) that affect a child's movement and co-ordination.
Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage which usually occurs before, during or soon after birth. Some possible causes of cerebral palsy include:
The most severe type of cerebral palsy is called spastic quadriplegia, where a person has such a high degree of muscle stiffness (spasticity) in all of their limbs they are unable to use them.
Read more about cerebral palsy.
Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare genetic condition. It is caused by a mutation in a gene known as the GAA gene.
The mutation results in the body not producing enough frataxin which is a protein. Frataxin is thought to play a role in the regulation of iron levels inside nerve cells.
Due to the lack of enough frataxin being produced, the level of iron and other toxic substances starts to build up inside the nerve cells, damaging them.
Many people with Friedreich’s ataxia experience a gradual increase of paralysis in their legs. They will eventually need to use a wheelchair or some other type of mobility aid.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare and poorly understood condition caused by peripheral nervous system damage. The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that controls the body's senses and movements.
In Guillain-Barré syndrome, the body's immune system attacks the nerves of the peripheral nervous system, which causes them to become inflamed.
This nerve damage results in a tingly, numb sensation in the arms and legs, which can eventually lead to temporary paralysis of the arms, legs and face.
Most people with Guillain-Barré syndrome make a full recovery in a few weeks or months and do not experience any other associated problems.
Read more about Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread to people by infected ticks.
Ticks are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. The ticks release bacteria that can damage the nerves, leading to temporary paralysis of the face.
Read more about Lyme disease.
Motor neurone disease (MND) is a rare, incurable condition. Over time, the nerves in the brain and spine gradually lose function (neurodegeneration).
Nerve cells known as motor neurones are affected by MND. Motor neurones are specialised nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movements, such as walking. MND causes progressive muscle weakness, which eventually leads to total body paralysis.
Read more about motor neurone disease.
Spina bifida is a term that describes a series of birth defects that affect development of the spine and nervous system.
Myelomeningocele is the most serious type of spina bifida, occurring in one in every 1,000 births. It causes extensive damage to the nervous system which can often result in partial or total permanent paralysis of the lower limbs.
Read more about spina bifida.
Diagnosing paralysis is not usually necessary if the cause is obvious – for example, if paralysis has occurred after a stroke.
If tests are needed to help diagnose paralysis, the type of tests required will depend on the underlying cause.
Some tests used to help determine the extent of paralysis include:
There is currently no cure for permanent paralysis. The aim of treatment is to help a person adapt to life with paralysis by making them as independent as possible.
Another important goal of treatment is to address health problems and associated complications that arise from paralysis, such as pressure ulcers.
Various treatment options and aids available for people with paralysis are described below.
A range of mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, are available for people with paralysis.
There are two main types of wheelchair:
There is also a relatively new type of wheelchair known as a standing chair, which functions like a wheelchair but allows the person to rise to a standing position. This helps to reduce their risk of developing pressure sores. However, standing chairs can be expensive and are heavier than standard chairs.
Orthoses are an alternative to wheelchairs. They are braces usually made of plastic or metal designed to improve the function of a limb and compensate for muscle weakness.
Examples of orthoses include:
A neuroprosthesis is a newer type of orthosis. Neuroprotheses are based on a technique called functional electrical stimulation (FES). FES uses electrodes (small, metallic discs stuck to your skin) to deliver electrical currents to muscles in the legs or arms. The currents stimulate the muscles to move in the same way that the brain would normally.
FES is not suitable for people with conditions that directly damage the nerves in the legs, such as motor neurone disease and Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is because the nerves will not react to the electrical currents.
Using orthoses can be physically demanding so they may not be suitable for everyone. Alternatively, you may decide to use both a wheelchair and an orthosis.
There is also a wide range of assistive technology that can help a person with paralysis maintain their independence and improve their quality of life. Examples include:
It may be possible for you to drive a car, even if you have limited muscle function in your hands and arms.
Devices can be used to adapt the controls of a car to meet the needs of a person with paralysis. For example, the pedals can be replaced with levers or an electrical switching system, and the steering wheel adapted so you steer using your wrists or arms rather than having to grip it with your hands.
Almost all types of spinal cord injury and many types of generalised paralysis result in the loss of normal bowel and bladder function. This is because nerves that control the bowel and bladder are located at the base of the spinal cord.
Most people use a catheter to empty urine from their bladder. A catheter is a thin, flexible tube inserted into the urethra (the opening in the penis or vagina that urine flows out of), or through a hole in the abdomen (tummy). The catheter is then guided into the bladder, allowing urine to flow through it and into a drainage bag.
There are many methods that can be used to manage a paralysed bladder. The recommended method will depend on your ability, the state of your bladder and resources available.
It is important to ensure your bladder is emptied regularly because an overly full bladder can trigger a serious complication called autonomic dysreflexia in high spinal cord injuries.
Read more about urinary catheterisation.
There are two main treatment options to help people with paralysis empty their bowel:
Neuropathic pain is pain caused by nerve damage. Many people with a spinal cord injury, and some with other types of paralysis, have long-term pain that persists for weeks, months or sometimes years after the injury or incident that caused the paralysis.
Unlike most other types of pain, neuropathic pain does not usually respond well to ordinary painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Alternative medications are usually required, such as amitriptyline or pregabalin.
These types of medication can cause a wide range of side effects, so it can take time to identify one that is suitable and effective in controlling your symptoms without causing unpleasant side effects. Possible side effects include a dry mouth, sweating, drowsiness and vision problems.
There have been reports of people having suicidal thoughts while taking amitriptyline. If this happens, you should contact your doctor or go to your nearest hospital immediately.
It may be helpful to tell a relative or close friend you are taking amitriptyline, and to ask them to let you know if they notice any changes in your behaviour.
If you have had a spinal cord injury to the upper neck, your diaphragm will be paralysed. The diaphragm is a thin dome-shaped muscle that helps you breathe in and out.
As your diaphragm will not be able to help you breathe, you will need breathing assistance from a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that carries out the job of the diaphragm by controlling lung pressure.
This can be done in one of two ways, using either a:
Positive pressure ventilators are more widely used because they are usually smaller and more convenient. A positive pressure ventilator can either be:
A non-invasive ventilator system carries a smaller risk of causing a lung infection, such as pneumonia. However, non-invasive ventilators are not suitable for people with more extensive paralysis who have difficulty swallowing.
An alternative to using a ventilator is a device called a phrenic nerve stimulator. The phrenic nerve controls the diaphragm. The device is surgically implanted in the chest and sends regular electrical impulses to the phrenic nerve, causing the diaphragm to contract and expand and fill the lungs with air.
Another problem that affects most people with paralysis is their ability to cough is reduced. This is because the cough reflex is triggered by muscles in the abdomen (tummy) and between the ribs, pressing down onto the lungs. If these muscles are paralysed, the force of a person's cough can be greatly reduced.
This is potentially serious because a person's ability to cough enables them to clear their lungs of a build-up of mucus and other secretions. A reduced cough can cause the lungs to become congested, increasing the risk of a lung infection.
One technique used to compensate this is known as an assisted cough. It involves a relative or carer pushing against the outside of your stomach while you attempt to cough.
There are also a number of devices available to help you cough. They usually consist of vests that can contract (squeeze) against your lungs, compensating for the loss of muscle action.
It is important you take these precautions to reduce your risk of developing a lung infection.
Spasticity is a medical term that means abnormally stiff and rigid muscles. Many people with paralysis develop spasticity and involuntary muscle spasms (where muscles cramp and contract).
Spasticity and muscle spasms are usually caused by the section of the spinal cord below the point of the injury ‘misfiring’ and sending abnormal signals to the limbs.
In some cases, spasticity and muscle spasms can be useful. For example, if you have partial paralysis in your legs, the stiffness in your muscles may make your legs easier to control. Some people also find that a series of muscle spasms make it easier for them to empty their bladder or bowel.
However, in other cases, spasticity and muscle spasms can be painful, affect mobility and interfere with daily activities. Treatments for spasticity and muscle spasms are discussed below.
The first type of medication you may be prescribed is a muscle relaxant, such as Baclofen,Tizanidine or Dantrolene , usually taken in tablet form. Sedatives like Diazepam should be avoided except in severe cases. All these medicines may cause sedation as a side effect.
If muscle relaxants are not effective, an injection of botulinum toxin (Botox) may be given for localised spasms. It works by blocking the signals from the brain to the affected muscles.
The effects of the injection usually last for up to three months. The treatment is most effective when used in conjunction with a programme of stretching and physical therapy.
Another possible treatment is intrathecal baclofen therapy. This involves surgically implanting a small pump on the outside of the body connected to the spinal cord.
The pump delivers regular doses of a medicine called Baclofen directly to the spine. It blocks some of the nerve signals that cause muscle stiffness.
If you are paralysed it is important you take measures to prevent getting pressure ulcers.
Regular pressure relief in the wheelchair or in bed is essential to prevent pressure sores.
Taking care of your skin is important if you have paralysis as you have an increased risk of developing a pressure ulcer.
Pressure ulcers develop when sustained pressure interrupts the blood supply to parts of the body. Blood contains oxygen and other nutrients required to keep tissue healthy. Without a constant supply of blood, tissue damage occurs and the tissue will eventually die.
Pressure ulcers do not develop in people with normal mobility because the body's regular movements stop pressure building up on any one part of the body. For example, when you are asleep you may think you are lying still, but you will probably shift position up to 20 times a night.
If a person is unable to move regularly due to paralysis, pressure ulcers can quickly develop, sometimes over the course of a few hours.
Changing your position regularly is an effective way of preventing pressure ulcers. As a general rule, wheelchair users should change their position at least once every 15-30 minutes.
If you need to stay in bed, you should change your position at least once every two hours. If you are unable to change position yourself, a carer or relative can assist you.
Special cushions, mattresses and other pressure-relieving devices are also available to help reduce pressure on your affected limbs.
It's also important to keep the skin in the affected area clean and dry. Wet skin is more vulnerable to damage from sustained pressure.
Regularly check your skin for any signs of pressure ulcers. They usually begin as an area of red, unbroken skin that either feels warm and spongy or, alternatively, hard to the touch.
You can usually prevent affected skin from getting worse by keeping it clean and not putting undue pressure on it until it has healed.
If the skin has broken, or looks like an open wound or blister, you should contact your care team for advice.
Read more about pressure ulcers.
If you are paralysed, if possible, it is important to exercise regularly and achieve a good level of fitness. The reasons for this are:
In the first few days or weeks after the accident or injury that caused your paralysis, or as part of your long-term treatment plan, you will be introduced to a physiotherapist (a specialist in physical rehabilitation and exercise).
Your physiotherapist will discuss different exercises and activities you can do. Depending on the extent of your paralysis, recommended exercises and activities may include:
If your paralysis is so severe you are unable to carry out any voluntary exercise, functional electrical stimulation (FES) may be recommended. FES uses electrodes (small, metallic discs placed on your skin) to deliver electrical currents to the muscles in your legs or arms to stimulate movement.
People with extensive paralysis can use a FES bike to exercise. It is similar in appearance to a normal indoor exercise bike, but has a series of electrodes attached to your legs. These stimulate your muscles so you are able to turn the bike's pedals.
A person with paralysis can develop a number of complications, including autonomic dysreflexia, sexual problems and depression.
Autonomic dysreflexia is a potentially life-threatening complication. It can affect people with paralysis as a result of a spinal cord injury at the middle of the chest or higher. It is commonly seen in tetraplegia (where both the arms and legs are paralysed, also known as quadraplegia).
Autonomic dysreflexia is caused by a problem with the autonomic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that regulates many of the body's functions you don't have to think about, such as blood pressure, digestion and breathing.
Autonomic dysreflexia occurs when something interferes with the normal function of your autonomic nervous system. Your nervous system will send a signal to your brain to find out how to deal with the irritant. However, due to the injury in your spinal cord, the signal will be unable to reach your brain.
The blocked signal will then trigger a series of abnormal reflexes, which cause your autonomic nervous system to raise your blood pressure and slow your heartbeat.
Signs and symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia include:
If it is not treated, autonomic dysreflexia can cause seizures and bleeding inside the brain, which can be fatal.
The most common trigger of autonomic dysreflexia is a problem with the bladder such as:
Other triggers for autonomic dysreflexia include:
The first thing to do if you suspect autonomic dysreflexia is to sit up (if possible) or raise your head upright. You should also lower your legs if you can.
Identifying the trigger is the next important step. The most common trigger is a bladder problem so you should check your catheter system first. Check whether:
If you have a full bladder or are unable to pass urine, and you do not have a catheter attached, you may need urgent urinary catheterisation.
If your bladder does not appear to be the trigger, check your bowel next. Use your finger or ask your trained carer to do so to check whether there are any hardened stools in your back passage. The use of lubricated gloves is recommended.. Any large, hard stools detected should be gently removed.
If neither your bladder or bowel seem to be the trigger, check your skin for any pressure ulcers or an ingrown toenail. Loosen any clothing from skin or toes that appear damaged.
If you are unable to identify the trigger or relieve the symptoms using the advice above, contact your care team immediately. If this is not possible, call NHS Direct on 0845 4647.
Coming to terms with paralysis, particularly if it occurred suddenly and unexpectedly, can be difficult and traumatic. Many people go through the classic stages of grief, as described below:
Some people with paralysis find it difficult to reach the acceptance stage and continue to be depressed. It is estimated that about 20-30% of people with permanent paralysis are affected by depression.
It is important not to ignore any signs or symptoms of depression. As well as affecting your rehabilitation, symptoms of depression can also quickly worsen if they are not treated promptly. Read more about depression.
People who experience depression after paralysis usually come to terms with the condition. One study which looked at people living with paraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs) for many years found 83% reported having either an above-average or average quality of life.
Paralysis can often have an impact on a person's sex life and [fertility]. However, even if you have severe paralysis it does not necessarily mean you will be unable to have children or sexual intercourse.
Paralysis can sometimes affect a man’s ability to get and maintain an erection and his ability to ejaculate sperm.
There are two types of erection:
As the nerves that control the reflex erection are located at the base of your spine, your ability to achieve this type of erection will usually be retained even if your paralysis is severe.
However, the nerves that control a psychogenic erection are located much higher up the spine, so men with high-level partial paralysis and almost any type of complete paralysis are unlikely to be able to have a psychogenic erection.
If you are only able to have a reflex erection, it will still be possible for you to have sex, although you may find it difficult to maintain an erection for a prolonged period of time. This is known as erectile dysfunction.
Treatment options for erectile dysfunction include medication, such as sildenafil (Viagra), which increase the blood flow to your penis, and penis pumps, which create a vacuum and cause blood to flow to your penis.
Read more about erectile dysfunction.
The type and location of your paralysis will also affect whether you will be able to ejaculate sperm.
If you lose the ability to ejaculate but you want to have children, a number of different techniques can be used to obtain a sperm sample. The sample can then be used in fertility treatment, such as intrauterine insemination (where a sample of sperm is implanted into a woman’s womb through a tube).
A widely used technique is known as penile vibratory stimulation (PVS), where a specially designed vibrator is placed against the underside of the penis. The vibrator stimulates the nerve endings of the penis, triggering ejaculation. The process usually takes about 10-30 minutes to complete.
As it is important to store the sperm sample as quickly as possible, PVS is usually carried out in the private room of a fertility clinic.
If PVS is unsuccessful, an alternative technique known as rectal probe electroejaculation (RPE) can be used. Again, RPE will usually be carried out in a fertility clinic.
During RPE, an electric probe will be inserted into your rectum (back passage). The probe delivers a small electrical pulse to the rectum, which stimulates the nerves and triggers an ejaculation. The sperm can then be collected.
In women with paralysis, physical libido (sex drive) and fertility are usually unaffected.
Many women may experience a reduction in their sex drive due to concerns about their body image or having to use a bladder or bowel control system.
You will probably find your vagina no longer becomes lubricated when you are sexually aroused. This is because nerves located higher up the spine trigger the process of lubrication. You can compensate for this by using an artificial water-based lubricant, such as KY jelly. Do not use petroleum jelly (Vaseline) because it will irritate your vagina.
There is usually no reason why a woman who is paralysed and pregnant cannot have a vaginal delivery during childbirth.
Pregnant woman with a spinal cord injury at T6 or higher have an increased risk of developing autonomic dysreflexia, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms (see above) and, if you experience them, inform your doctor or midwife immediately.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.