Paralysis 

  • Overview

Introduction 

Living with a disability

In this video, Tim, Celia, Kate and Peter share their stories and describe how they found their own way to cope with their disability.

Media last reviewed: 20/08/2013

Next review due: 20/08/2015

How common is paralysis?

It is difficult to estimate exactly how widespread paralysis is in England because cases are not recorded in the same way as cancer or heart attacks, for example.

A study carried out in America found that one in every 50 people had some degree of paralysis. While there may be some difference in the number of cases in England, it is unlikely that the figures will be significantly different.

Care and support

Advice on choosing social care, how to fund care, carers' breaks, benefits and care assessments online

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.

Classifying paralysis

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:

  • monoplegia  where one limb is paralysed
  • hemiplegia  where the arm and leg on one side of the body are paralysed
  • paraplegia  where both legs and sometimes the pelvis and some of the lower body are paralysed
  • tetraplegia  where both the arms and legs are paralysed (also known as quadriplegia)

Read more about how paralysis is classified.

What causes paralysis?

The three most common causes of paralysis are:

  • stroke
  • head injury 
  • spinal cord injury  the spinal cord is a bundle of nerve tracts that runs through the spine and helps control the body's muscles
  • multiple sclerosis

Sometimes, paralysis can also occur as a result of a number of other conditions such as cerebral palsy and Guillain-Barré syndrome

Read more about the causes of paralysis.

Living with 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:

  • help a person live as independently as possible
  • address any associated complications that arise from paralysis, such as pressure ulcers (sores that develop when the affected area of tissue is placed under too much pressure)
  • address bladder and bowel problems that are secondary to paralysis
  • treat spasms and complications resulting from paralysis

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.

The NHS supplies wheelchairs free of charge, but the range of models available is often limited. If you want a more sophisticated model, you will have to pay for it. Your primary care trust (PCT) may be able to help fund some of the cost.

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.

Read more about treating paralysis and the complications of paralysis.

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.

Page last reviewed: 10/07/2012

Next review due: 10/07/2014

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