Paralysis

It can be a symptom of many different conditions

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Paralysis describes complete or partial weakness of the body or part of the body. It can occur suddenly or gradually as a result of conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, or nerves.

If you or someone else experiences paralysis, it’s important to get medical attention right away—it could be caused by a health emergency, such as a stroke or damage to the spine. 

This article will describe the symptoms of paralysis, types, possible causes, diagnosis, and treatment, and when to see a healthcare provider.

Person in wheelchair affected by paralysis

Sean Anthony Eddy / Getty Images

Symptoms of Paralysis 

Paralysis feels like you can’t move part of your body the way you want to, no matter how hard you try. It is an alarming symptom that’s hard to ignore. Paralysis may involve an arm or a leg, or it may involve the hand, foot, or face.

Symptoms that commonly occur along with paralysis include:

  • Numbness or tingling of the weak part of the body 
  • Loss of sensation of the weak part of the body 
  • Floppiness of the weak area of the body 

Paralysis is not usually associated with pain, jerking, or tremors. After weeks or months, painful spasticity—abnormal muscle tightness—can develop in the paralyzed limb.

Types of Paralysis 

Paralysis can include "paresis," which is a partial weakness of part of the body. Complete weakness of part of the body is called "plegia."

Types of paralysis include:

  • Hemiparesis or hemiplegia: Weakness of the face, arm, and/or leg on one side of the body 
  • Paraplegia: Weakness below the waist, may include loss of bowel and bladder control 
  • Quadriplegia: Weakness of all four limbs
  • Monoplegia: Weakness of one limb or part of one limb 
  • Gastroparesis: Diminished movements of the digestive system, which can cause constipation or vomiting
  • Bell’s palsy: A type of facial paralysis, usually of one side of the face

Causes of Paralysis 

Generally, paralysis or paresis of the face or the whole arm or leg will only involve one side of the body, and this is usually caused by a health condition affecting the brain or spinal cord. Often, paralysis or paresis of the foot or hand may involve both sides of the body, and it’s usually caused by a health condition affecting a nerve, like peripheral neuropathy.

Many different conditions can cause paralysis, including:

  • Stroke: An interruption of blood flow in an artery in the brain can affect areas of the brain that control motor movement. Heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and uncontrolled diabetes are common risk factors.
  • Multiple sclerosis: This inflammatory condition causes recurrent episodes of weakness, coordination changes, and more due to demyelination (damage to the protective sheath of nerve fibers) in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome: This disease causes weakness due to inflammatory demyelination of the peripheral motor nerves, usually starting in the legs and moving up the body.
  • Herniated spinal disk: This occurs when a cartilage disk in the spinal column moves out of place, usually due to degenerative disease or trauma.
  • Traumatic injury of the brain or spinal cord
  • Brain tumor or spinal cord tumor 
  • Peripheral neuropathy: Many disorders can cause diminished function of the peripheral nerves that control movement, including uncontrolled diabetes, chronic alcohol use, and vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Severe infection or inflammation of the brain or spinal cord 
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): This rare disease causes degeneration of a specific part of the spine. It generally affects people over age 50 and progresses within a few years.
  • Post-seizure paralysis: After a seizure, some people experience paralysis of one limb on one side of the body, lasting from minutes up to a few hours.
  • Hereditary issues like spinal muscular atrophy: This condition is caused by a genetic defect that impairs the production of a protein that is necessary for a healthy spine.

These issues may cause permanent paralysis, but prompt treatment can lessen the long-term severity of the weakness. 

What Medications Cause Paralysis?

In general, medications don’t usually cause paralysis as a side effect. Some medications used for surgical anesthesia are muscle paralytics that temporarily paralyze the muscles during surgery. The paralytic effects are temporary, and strength should return once the medication is stopped.  

How to Treat Paralysis 

Paralysis can be treated with several medical interventions. The short-term treatment involves treating the cause. 

Examples of treatments for paralysis include: 

Physical therapy and rehabilitation are a vital part of recovery and increased function if you have experienced paralysis due to any cause. 

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Paralysis?

If you’ve experienced paralysis, you will need a thorough medical evaluation. This will include a comprehensive neurological examination, which involves steps such as checking your reflexes, strength testing, sensory examination, and more.

A general sense of fatigue can make you feel weak, but this is not the same as paralysis, which is due to a problem with neurological control of a muscle or muscles. The difference will be apparent based on your physical examination. 

Other tests that you would need will be determined based on the pattern of your paralysis and may include:

  • Brain imaging: Such as brain computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Spine imaging: Such as spine CT or MRI 
  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction study (NCV): Tests that use electrodes to record electrical signals in your nerves and muscles
  • Lumbar puncture: A needle inserted between two vertebrae to obtain cerebrospinal fluid for analysis

The results of these tests can help your healthcare providers distinguish the type of condition that’s causing your paralysis. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

Decreased muscle control or changes in sensation, vision, or speech can indicate a serious medical issue and you need to get medical attention promptly.

Summary 

Paralysis can be a symptom of different conditions that affect the brain, nerves, and spinal cord. It is a serious symptom that can affect one or more areas of the body. The pattern of paralysis often corresponds to the cause. Generally, diagnostic testing is necessary. Treatment can often reduce long-term weakness, and rehabilitation is usually necessary. 

A Word From Verywell

If you have developed paralysis, it is important that you get prompt medical attention. Paralysis is a symptom of serious neurological conditions. You will need to have medical treatment to prevent the condition causing it from worsening. Paralysis is serious, but you can have a good outcome with consistent rehabilitation and medical care. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes paralysis?

    Damage to the brain, spinal cord, or nerves can cause paralysis.

  • Can malnutrition cause paralysis?

    Nutritional deficits should not cause paralysis. Issues of malnutrition can cause general fatigue and weakness, paresthesia (tingling, numbness, or other unusual sensations), and muscle atrophy. But these issues rarely cause the type of loss of motor control that’s characteristic of paralysis.

  • Is paralysis permanent?

    Paralysis can sometimes improve on its own, but it usually does not. In fact, paralysis can often worsen if the cause is not adequately treated.

  • What does paralysis look like?

    Paralysis might not be noticeable to other people, but sometimes it is very noticeable. It can look like a droopy face or a floppy arm or leaning to one side. Sometimes leg paralysis can cause a sudden fall.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Wang Q, Chen FY, Ling ZM, Su WF, Zhao YY, Chen G, Wei ZY. The effect of Schwann cells/Schwann cell-like cells on cell therapy for peripheral neuropathy. Front Cell Neurosci. 2022;16:836931. doi:10.3389/fncel.2022.836931

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By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.