Paralysis: Everything You Need to Know

Paralysis is the loss of muscle function in your body. Depending on the cause, paralysis can affect one or more parts of the body and be temporary or permanent. This article will review the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment of paralysis. 

A disabled man is sitting in a wheelchair.

Types of Paralysis

The severity of paralysis can vary depending on how many parts of the body are affected. The main types of complete paralysis are:

  • Quadriplegia (tetraplegia): Paralysis of both arms and legs
  • Paraplegia: Paralysis of both legs
  • Hemiplegia: Paralysis of one side of the body
  • Paresis: Partial paralysis that causes extreme muscle weakness.

Depending on the underlying cause, paralysis can either be temporary or permanent.

Paralysis Symptoms

The main symptom of paralysis is the inability to move parts of your body. Depending on what part of your body is affected, you may also experience other symptoms such as:

  • Inability to walk
  • Loss of standing balance
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills
  • Lack of independence with self-care tasks and activities of daily living (ADLs)
  • Altered muscle tone
  • Exaggerated reflexes
  • Numbness
  • Sensitivity to pressure or temperature
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Facial droop, drooling, or dry eye

What Causes Paralysis?

Paralysis can result from damage or injury to the brain, spinal cord, or nerves that control muscle movement. This damage can occur because of genetic disorders, inflammation throughout the body, or direct injuries like car accidents and falls. 

When the brain, spinal cord, or nerves are damaged, electrical signals cannot travel along nerve pathways to the muscles to allow them to move, resulting in paralyzed muscles.

The most common causes of paralysis include:

Signs of a Stroke

Signs of a stroke include the following:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty walking
  • Sudden severe headache

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms, call 911 for immediate treatment because a stroke is a serious medical emergency.


To diagnose paralysis, you will need to see a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Your neurologist will perform a physical examination to assess your cognition, reflexes, and ability to perform and coordinate movements.

Your neurologist will also prescribe tests to determine the underlying cause of your paralysis. These include:

  • Bloodwork to check for an infection or inflammatory markers of autoimmune conditions
  • A CT scan and/or MRI of your brain or spinal cord to check for damage
  • Electromyography (EMG) and a nerve conduction study (NCS) to examine the electrical activity within your muscles and nerves
  • Myelography, a procedure by which a contrast dye is injected into your spinal fluid and examined under CT scan imaging to examine your spinal cord
  • A spinal tap (lumbar puncture) to test your spinal fluid for signs of infection or inflammation


Treatment for paralysis will vary depending on what caused the paralysis. Paralysis from infections, like Guillain-Barré syndrome, may be treated with antibiotic or antiviral medication.

Other forms of paralysis from genetic or acquired conditions or direct injury to the brain, spinal cord, or nerves can be permanent. In these cases, treatment will involve using different types of specialized equipment to help you function on your own as independently as possible, including:

  • Assistive devices such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and canes to help you walk and move around
  • Adaptive equipment like specialized tools and driving attachments to modify everyday tasks to fit your abilities
  • Orthotics like braces and splints to maintain the positioning of your joints 

Physical, occupational, and speech therapy also all play important roles in rehabilitation from paralysis. These therapies can help improve your speech, swallowing, and the strength of other muscles unaffected by paralysis to maintain as much physical independence as possible with everyday tasks.

A physical and/or occupational therapist can also help you learn how to use adaptive equipment and assistive devices properly to help with your overall level of mobility and ability to complete ADLs with less help from others.

To prevent paralysis from injury, you should seek immediate medical treatment following any type of trauma or fall. If you injured your neck or back, you should avoid moving, while your spine should be stabilized with a cervical collar and/or back brace until taken to a hospital to assess for a fracture that could potentially move and injure your spinal cord. 


Paralysis of different muscles of the body can cause complications with other systems due to a lack of proper muscle function that supports your circulation, heart and lung function, and overall mobility. These complications may not be apparent right away and can develop over the long term.

Common complications that can result from paralysis include:

  • Blood clots and deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  • Increased risk of developing pneumonia and other infections due to impaired breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Autonomic dysreflexia, a medical emergency causing increased blood pressure and heart rate due to spinal cord damage
  • Pressure ulcers (bed sores) from lack of movement
  • Muscle weakness in unaffected muscle groups from lack of movement
  • Weight gain
  • Depression


Advances in rehabilitation can help improve the ability of people with altered physical functioning to perform everyday tasks independently with the help of assistive devices and adaptive technology. 

Starting rehabilitation as soon as possible following any type of injury is also crucial for restoring as much lost physical functioning as possible and preserving the functioning of unaffected muscle groups to help maintain your independence.


Paralysis is the loss of the ability to move your muscles, which can be partial or complete and temporary or permanent. Paralysis results from injuries or conditions that damage the brain, spinal cord, or body's nerves that control muscle movement. Though paralysis is often permanent, physical, occupational, and speech therapy, as well as the use of assistive devices and adaptive equipment and technology, can maintain independence with moving around and completing daily tasks.

A Word From Verywell 

Though paralysis of one or more parts of your body can present several challenges, technology and rehabilitation are always changing to improve the condition. The right assistive devices and adaptive equipment and technology can provide you with appropriate help to function as independently as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a paralysis attack feel like?

    A paralysis attack can induce feelings of tingling, numbness, weakness, and loss of control over functions like speaking, swallowing, and going to the bathroom.

  • Is there any cure for paralysis?

    There is currently no cure for paralysis, but new technology including spinal cord implants to stimulate the spinal cord may help relieve pain.

  • What is the most common cause of paralysis?

    The most common cause of paralysis is stroke.

11 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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  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke signs and symptoms.

  7. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Guillain-Barré syndrome fact sheet.

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  10. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Spinal cord stimulator.

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By Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT
Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.