What is Paralysis?

Paralysis is the temporary or permanent inability to move some or all of one’s body, often due to nerve damage. The lack of control over a muscle or group of muscles is typically unrelated to an injury to that particular region. Instead, paralysis is likely the result of a problem within a chain of nerve cells responsible for relaying messages from the affected area to the brain. The spinal cord serves as the brain’s relay system, so paralysis often occurs when something in the spinal cord is injured or does not work. The majority of spinal cord injuries are incomplete, meaning some signals may still be relayed to the brain. In such instances, an individual may retain diminished sensations and movements. However, the condition’s severity may fluctuate unpredictably. Complete spinal cord injuries compress or sever the nerves entirely, rendering it impossible to relay signals to the brain. Paralysis can affect any part or area of the body. Paralysis specific to single body parts such as the face, hands, feet, or vocal cords is defined as localized, while generalized paralysis affects larger regions such as limbs or entire sides of the body.

Causes of Paralysis

Damage to one’s spinal cord, brain, nerves, or the convergence of nerves and muscle causes paralysis. The damage disallows signals to be relayed from the nerves to the brain, resulting in an inability to move the affected body part or parts. The most common cause of paralysis is a stroke, accounting for more than one-third of all cases, according to a study by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. The second-most prevalent cause is a spinal cord injury, such as one would suffer in a car accident or fall. Other common causes include brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and congenital disabilities.

Types of Paralysis

While there are many types and varying degrees of paralysis, the generalized form of the condition is typically separated into four categories based on what portion of the body is affected: Monoplegia, Hemiplegia, Paraplegia, and Quadriplegia.

  • Monoplegia affects a single area of the body, often one limb. Its leading cause is cerebral palsy, although strokes, tumors, nerve impingement, motor neuron damage, brain injuries, or nerve damages to the specific region can also cause monoplegia. When occurring following a stroke or brain injury, monoplegia can be temporary. If nerves in the area are not severed, physical therapy can help restore significant function to the paralyzed area.
  • Hemiplegia is the paralysis of both limbs on the same side of one’s body. The degree of this condition varies by individual and has the potential to change over time. Often beginning as a tingling sensation, hemiplegia can progress to muscle weakness and eventually complete paralysis. Many suffering from hemiplegia notice varying degrees of functionality over time, depending on health and activity level, among other factors. Early interventions, including physical and occupational therapy, may improve the prognosis for those affected.
  • Paraplegia is paralysis below the waist, typically affecting both legs and hips, as well as functions including sexuality. It significantly impairs functionality and movement, but is not necessarily a total paralysis and can vary in severity. Paraplegics are often able to regain some functioning through physical therapy. Because spinal cord injuries are the most common cause of paraplegia, therapy can help retrain the brain and spinal cord while strengthening muscles.
  • Quadriplegia defines paralysis below the neck, affecting all four limbs and the torso. The condition may also affect the function of one’s heart, lungs, or other organs. The degree of disability varies by case, with some quadriplegics able to eventually regain some or all functionality, either spontaneously or through physical therapy and exercise. The condition can occasionally be transient as the result of an injury or stroke temporarily compressing spinal nerve cords. Similar to paraplegia, quadriplegia’s most common causes are spinal cord injuries. However, it can also result from acquired brain injuries, loss of oxygen to the brain and spinal cord, congenital abnormalities, or spinal and brain infections, among other causes.

Paralysis Treatment

There are no current cures for paralysis, though feeling and muscle control may return naturally or following the treatment of the condition’s root cause. However, rehabilitation is often encouraged as an attempt to improve mobility. Physical therapy serves to stimulate nerves and muscles, while occupational therapy can improve one’s ability to perform everyday activities. Furthermore, there is an abundance of aids designed to improve the quality of life for paralyzed individuals. Examples include adaptive equipment to assist with eating or driving, assistive technology such as voice-activated computers, mobility aids including wheelchairs and scooters, and supportive devices like braces and walkers.

Paralysis Prognosis

Despite paralysis research improving the chances of recovery daily, it is atypical to reverse the condition completely. However, sufferers can often lead independent and active lives with the assistance of mobility aids and supportive devices. For paralysis associated with a spinal cord injury, early implementation of physical therapy to strengthen muscles below the injury site and remaining as active as possible are vital to improving the long-term outlook.