Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Paralysis always requires prompt medical attention. Most often, it affects a specific part of the body, but in some instances, virtually the entire body may be immobile. In addition to a number of different diseases, paralysis can be caused by an accident, poisoning, or even an adverse reaction to a drug.

Causes of paralysis

Bell's palsy
This condition involves paralysis of one side of the face. The paralysis, which is usually temporary, comes on suddenly, often accompanied by pain behind the ear on the affected side of the face. The features are expressionless on that side, and the eye may not close properly.

Cerebral hemorrhage
A cerebral hemorrhage occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, usually resulting in a stroke. Brain damage from the hemorrhage can result in paralysis of one side of the body, as well as other serious disabilities. Key symptoms are an unusual and severe headache that comes on abruptly, a stiff neck, difficulty speaking, visual disturbances, problems with motor control on one side of the body, breathing problems, nausea and vomiting, delirium, and unconsciousness or coma.

Guillain-Barre syndrome
This disease typically follows a viral infection. It starts with muscle weakness and loss of sensation that spreads rapidly, affecting the hands, feet, arms, legs, abdomen, and chest. In severe cases, it causes temporary paralysis, which can be life threatening if it involves the breathing muscles.

Huntington's chorea
In this genetic disorder, symptoms usually do not appear until middle age. The first signs are involuntary tics and twitches, which progress to disjointed movements, paralysis, and death. There is also progressive mental degeneration.

Motor neuron diseases
These conditions are characterized by weakness and wasting of muscles due to a disorder of the central nervous system. Parkinson's disease is one of the most common of such diseases. In its early stages, Parkinson's is characterized by tremor, a shuffling gait, and a fixed facial

A severed or crushed spinal cord in the middle or lower back invariably causes paralysis of the legs.

A severed or crushed spinal cord in the middle or lower back invariably causes paralysis of the legs.

expression. Eventually, the tremor may be replaced by rigidity or paralysis. Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is another relatively common motor neuron disorder. It begins with muscle twitching and weakness in the hands and spreads to the arms and legs, eventually leading to paralysis.

Multiple sclerosis
This chronic disorder affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. Difficulty walking often progresses to paralysis over a long period. Eventually difficulty speaking and loss of bladder and bowel control may occur.

Muscular dystrophy
This gradual deterioration of the muscles usually strikes males. Many patients are confined to wheelchairs by the time they reach adolescence.

Myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia gravis usually affects the muscles of the face and head, but in severe cases, it may also spread to the muscles that control breathing and cause respiratory paralysis.

Psychiatric disorders
Some severe psychiatric diseases produce a type of psychogenic paralysis called catatonia. For example, catatonia may be a manifestation of schizophrenia or severe psychosis. Some types of hysteria may also produce catatonia.

Sleep paralysis
This is a momentary condition that occurs occasionally just before falling asleep or immediately after waking up.

The brief attacks are more common in children than adults. In a few cases, the attacks may be a sign of another sleep disorder called narcolepsy.

Spina bifida
When an unborn baby's vertebrae fail to close properly, part of the spinal cord may protrude through the spinal column. Depending on the severity of the problem, there may be partial or complete paralysis of parts of the body served by nerves below the spinal deformity.

Spinal cord injuries and disorders
Broken bones in the neck or spine can damage the spinal cord. The extent of the resulting paralysis depends upon the location of the damage. Neck fractures can cause nearly total body paralysis, whereas a fracture in the middle or lower back affects only the lower extremities. In addition, the spinal cord may be damaged by a disease or back disorder. These problems usually do not cause paralysis, but in some cases (such as a severe ruptured disk), the spinal cord or nerves radiating from it may be damaged enough to cause paralysis.

Advice about paralysis

  • Seek immediate medical attention it any symptoms of paralysis occur.
  • Anyone who has suffered an injury that seems to involve the neck or the back should not be moved unless it is essential to prevent loss of life. All such injuries should be handled by trained emergency medical personnel.
This article was last reviewed November 12, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.
Bell's palsy
Cerebral hemorrhages
Fractures, neck/spine
Guillain-Barre syndrome
Huntington's chorea
Lou Gehrig's disease
Motor neuron disease
Multiple sclerosis
Muscular dystrophy
Myasthenia gravis
Parkinson's disease
Ruptured disk
Sleep paralysis
Spina bifida
Spinal cord degeneration
Spinal cord severing

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