What is Paralysis?
Paralysis is a genuine and significant factor for any spinal cord injury (SCI) survivor and their families. Paralysis can affect one or more areas of the body, either being highly localized (affecting specific areas) or generalized (affecting more extensive regions of the body).
The paralysis definition that we think is most effective is “the partial or full loss of movement, usually in response to an injury or illness.” This aligns with the paralysis definition outlined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines it as “the complete or partial loss of function especially when involving the motion or sensation in a part of the body… loss of the ability to move… a state of powerlessness or incapacity to act.”
How Does Paralysis Work?
There are quite a few different possibilities when it comes to determining the cause for a case of paralysis. It is easier to determine the cause of paralysis in some cases than others, but it most often has something to do with damage that has been done to the nervous system or brain.
Complete paralyzation often occurs when there is severe damage to the nervous system, especially the spinal cord. When it comes to temporary paralysis, one might think of the temporary state that a limb experiences when blood flow has been restricted to a part of the body and the individual is unable to use it.
What Does Permanent Paralysis Mean?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are varying degrees of paralysis. Permanent paralyzation is when an individual’s motor functions never return.
Other degrees of paralysis include:
- Partial / incomplete: Also known as hemiparesis, this means a person retains some level of control of their muscles. This could mean paralysis of one side of the body or that the individual is paralyzed from the waist down.
- Complete: Absolute paralyzation in which a person lacks all ability to move their muscles. For instance, an individual may be paralyzed from the neck down.
- Temporary: Temporary paralysis occurs when all or some muscle control comes and goes periodically. This episodic condition most often occurs because of muscle weakness, disease, or hereditary causes.
- Flaccid: When a person’s muscles lose tone or shrink.
- Spastic: When a person’s muscles become highly rigid or frequently spasm.
What Does Temporary Paralysis Mean?
Temporary paralysis occurs when all or some muscle control in any part of the body comes and goes periodically. This episodic paralysis most often occurs because of muscle weakness, disease, or hereditary causes.
There are also cases when people have experienced something traumatizing enough that they are unable to move. However, there is a more serious condition that is referred to as temporary paralysis, more commonly referred to as periodic paralysis, that refers to a disease which causes temporary episodes of muscle weakness.
Most of the time the disease is inherited, but it can happen that the symptoms were mild with past relatives so the family was not aware of the presence of the gene. As noted by Periodic Paralysis International, “This group of diseases is unusually difficult to diagnose and in most cases patients report numerous wrong diagnosis and treatments that made them worse.” In any case, when a person begins to show signs of paralysis, they should always seek medical attention immediately before trying to come to any conclusion about its cause.
Permanent Vs Temporary Paralysis
Unlike permanent paralysis, temporary paralysis is periodic. Temporary paralyzation occurs because of a dysfunction created in the genes that control certain functions in the muscle membrane. In most cases, this gene is passed down from another family member. About 50% of women who carry the gene mutation show no symptoms at all. However, people who do not show signs can still pass on the gene. “Each child of an affected parent has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene mutation.”
Symptoms of Temporary Paralysis
The triggers that most often cause temporary paralysis include:
- physical activity
Types of Temporary Paralysis
The different types of temporary paralysis are defined by which ion channel in the muscle membrane is affected. There have been around 30 mutations that have been discovered. A few examples are:
- Hypokalemic periodic paralysis: an inherited disorder that is defined by extremely low levels of potassium in the blood due to impaired sodium channels in the muscle membrane. The weakness in the muscles may be mild and only occur in certain muscle groups, or be may severe and impair the arms and legs.
- Paramyotonia congenita: a congenital disorder where the muscles will not relax after they contract due to dysfunction in the nerves. In this case, the problem is located in the nervous system instead of the muscles.
- Andersen-Tawil syndrome: a rare genetic disorder that affects the rhythm of the heart, disrupting the flow of potassium in the skeletal and cardiac muscle. People with this type of temporary paralysis may also have weakness in general, even in between attacks.
Diagnosis & Treatment
According to data from SteadyHealth, this group of diseases may be diagnosed by DNA testing—or a “properly performed Compound Muscle Amplitude Potential Test can provide an accurate diagnosis.” Treatments usually consist of:
- carbonic anhydrase inhibitors
- oral potassium chloride supplements
- thiazide to control how the kidneys retain potassium
- specific lifestyle changes including a designated amount of exercise and physical activity
Common Causes of Paralysis
According to research from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, “nearly 1 in 50 people [live] with paralysis” in the United States. Paralyzation can result from a variety of factors, such as intentional or accidental poisoning, illness, or injury.
Strokes are the most common causes of paralysis (33.7%) because of the effects strokes have on the brain and its ability to communicate with the spinal cord. This is followed by spinal cord injuries, which account for 27.3% of paralysis cases and multiple sclerosis (MS), which accounts for 18.6%, according to the Foundation.
Any injury to the spinal cord is liable to have long-lasting effects, but the causes of such an incident vary greatly from case to case. In an instance of medical malpractice though, a few commonalities tend to reappear. Here are a few of the most common causes of paralysis when medical malpractice is involved:
- Childbirth: Having a new baby is actually one of the few times anyone will visit the hospital for anything positive. However, because doctors are forced to act swiftly throughout labor and delivery, mistakes can happen. Standard medical practices can place the mother in jeopardy, but even infants can suffer if too much force is used during delivery. This can lead to damaging the bundle of nerves known as the brachial plexus, which connects throughout the upper body, and could cause permanent damage to the newborn’s arm functionality.
- Inaccurate diagnosis: Your medical professionals are often the voice you rely on to guide you in the best way to solve any health problems that may arise. So when they fail to properly diagnose your condition – or to do so in a timely fashion – it may result in permanent damage that is past the point of treatment. As we research more and more about spinal cord injuries (and other conditions that may lead to paralysis), it appears that moving quickly is a key element in rehabilitation and recovery. When your doctor fails to serve this purpose, it very well may be the cause of medical malpractice.
- Surgery: Surgeries are typically among the most serious medical procedures a patient will endure. Largely, that’s because of the invasiveness involved and, accordingly, the increased risk of something going wrong. The slightest misstep in neurological or orthopedic surgery could lead to paralysis as well as permanent damage to the spine and/or the brain. In the unfortunate event that this does happen, medical malpractice is almost certainly going to be cited as the cause.
Types of Paralysis and Their Symptoms
Although paralysis is often used as a blanket term to describe any loss of sensation or function, the truth is that the condition can take many forms. Depending on the severity of the damage and what muscle groups are affected, the body may react differently.
There are several types of paralysis that spinal cord injury survivors can sustain, and each type of paralysis results in different symptoms. These types of paralysis may also result from medical malpractice:
- Monoplegia: When paralysis is limited to just one part of the body – such as a single limb – it is known as monoplegia. Patients with this form of paralysis usually retain motion and sensation elsewhere in the body. Sometimes, monoplegia is a temporary condition of a stroke or brain injury. Most often, monoplegia is caused by cerebral palsy, though other trauma, such as strokes, tumors and nerve damage, may be responsible.
- Hemiplegia: Not to be confused with diplegia, this type of paralysis occurs when a patient experiences loss of function in an arm and a leg on a single side of the body – also known as paralysis of one side of the body. While cerebral palsy remains the most common cause, the extent of paralysis in hemiplegia patients can change over time, either from day to day or declining over a long period. Oftentimes, it is preceded by a weakness on the same side of the body, known as hemiparesis. Hemiplegia can result in a variety of conditions, including:
- Changes in cognition, mood, or perception;
- Reduced ability to speak;
- Seizures; and
- Reduced muscle density due to atrophy and spasms.
- Paraplegia: When a patient is paralyzed from the waist down he or she is suffering from paraplegia. Like hemiplegia, this condition – most often the result of a spinal cord injury – can vary from person to person and its effects depend on a variety of factors. Some of the symptoms of paraplegia include:
- Loss of mobility or sensory function below the waist;
- Changes in mood;
- Loss of sensation or phantom pain;
- Decreased sexual function, libido, or fertility; and
- Chronic pain.
Sometimes, patients are not even restricted to a wheelchair, and in rare cases, they are able to spontaneously recover.
- Quadriplegia: The most severe of these four basic forms of paralysis, patients suffering from quadriplegia (or tetraplegia) have paralysis from the neck down. Thankfully, the state of the condition varies from one case to the next, and patients can sometimes recover with physical therapy and other rehabilitation methods. Spinal cord injuries are usually the culprit here as well, and quadriplegia can on occasion be a temporary effect of a stroke, brain injury or temporary spinal pressure.
- Diplegia: This type of symmetrical paralysis affects the same area on both sides of the body — such as both arms or both legs. It most frequently affects children but can impact anyone of any age.
Myths about Paralysis
There are many myths and misconceptions about what it is like living with paralysis. According to an article from SpinalCordInjury-Paralysis.org, some of the most pervasive myths about paralysis and the people living with it include that people with paralysis:
- Are interested in or are unable to have sex.
- Have a “sad life”.
- Wish most for the ability to walk..
- Lack cognitive function due to the disability.
- Are unable to feel any pain.
- Aren’t capable of having a successful career/family/life.
- Are only dealing with paralysis and no other medical problems.
- Have all their expenses paid by the government.
- Always want help.
Infections That Can Lead to Paralysis
An infection results from bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites getting into the body. In some cases the body's immune system can fight it on its own, and in others the aid of prescription medications is necessary. However, in the most extreme cases the infections can cause various other ailments – including causing paralyzation.
Paralysis from infection, although not as common as infections alone, is a very real threat. To educate yourself further, here are some things you should know about infections that can lead to paralysis:
Insect Bites and Stings
Most bites from insects such as fleas, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and spiders, pose hardly any danger to human health. The venom or salivary fluid of these infectious insects usually just cause itchiness and swelling at the bite point on your skin for some time after it occurs.
Sometimes, however, the bites of these insects cause paralyzation, malaria, encephalitis, and West Nile Virus, among other serious health problems. These bites can also cause life threatening and traumatic conditions if you are allergic to the insect itself or the organisms they introduce to your body upon biting your skin.
Mosquitoes have become infamous as disease carriers due to outbreaks of Zika Virus and other illnesses. The fact is that the Zika Virus has been linked to a variety of ailments including brain infections. The attack on the brain stem resulting from Zika can lead to paralysis. West Nile Virus is another infection attributed to mosquitoes that can also cause paralysis and death.
A spider bite can be life threatening, especially in the elderly and in infants, because their immune systems are not as strong. For example, the black widow spider, found throughout the United States, is one of the most dangerous spiders in the world. Besides potentially causing paralyzation, the black widow's bite can cause stiffness and intense pain at the site of the bite along with abdominal pain, muscle spasms, fever, chills, and breathing or swallowing problems.
In most cases, the bite of a tick isn't harmful, but in others it can lead to life-threatening problems like Lyme disease, tularaemia, ehrlichiosis, and paralysis of the legs.
Odds are you have felt the intense sting of an ant bite at one point or another in your life. For the most part, these bites are harmless. However, in rare cases, the small fluid-filled bites of a fire ant bite can cause illness, allergic reactions, anaphylactic shock, vomiting, and, you guessed it – paralysis.
The sting of a scorpion causes sharp burning pain and numbness, but can also lead to infections, paralysis, and even death.
Food Infection or Food Poisoning
Food infection, more commonly known as food poisoning, is a common, but usually mild, illness. Unfortunately, some cases of food infection lead to severe and deadly health problems. Contamination of food and water is the main cause of food infection.
The most common cause of acute paralysis in the United States is chicken contamination according to NutritionFacts.org.
Toadstools and Mushrooms
Muscarine poisoning is caused by the ingestion of dozens of species of mushrooms and toadstools. In severe cases, these poisons can induce the start of complete or partial paralyzation by attacking one’s central nervous system.
Certain species of fish are poisonous by nature, like puffer fish. Some of the species of edible fish found in the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans also have ciguatera poison – similar to that of a puffer fish – produced by dinoflagellate, which is a tiny sea parasite. This poison can cause paralysis since it attacks the nervous system of the person who eats it.
Food poisoning can be caused by ingesting mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters because they can contain Saxitoxin – which is a potent neurotoxin. Ingestion of saxitoxin can result in a variety of severe illnesses. It can even produce paralysis or weakness around the mouth within a few minutes of ingesting it, which can spread to the rest of the body gradually.
Pesticides on Food Can Lead to Infection as Well
The poisons in pesticides on produce can cause harm as well. It is therefore critical to wash produce thoroughly prior to consumption.
Some cases of food infections that have led to paralyzation can be attributed to the consumption of wild leaves, nuts, berries, flowers, botulism, under ripe tubers, arsenic or lead from fertilizers, cadmium from containers, lead from potteries, acids, and more.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
It would seem the best way to protect yourself from insect borne infections would be to wear bug spray. For more information on insect bites, check out the Center for Disease Controls guide to avoiding bug bites, and their guide to avoiding mosquito bites.
In terms of paralysis from infections related to food, your best defense is to follow safe handling instructions such as washing your food, avoiding cross contamination, and cooking your food to the recommended temperature. Learn more about food safety here.
Paralysis Treatment Options
Much like a spinal cord injury itself, there is no “cure” for paralysis. All you can do is focus on addressing the symptoms of your type of paralysis to minimize their effects on your life. Some spinal cord injury paralysis treatment options include:
- Medical devices: These tools, such as wheelchairs, catheters, and artificial respirators, help to meet basic needs or improve the quality of life of people with spinal cord injuries.
- Medications: These can help to prevent or treat infections, reduce swelling and pain, and address other secondary complications.
- Surgical interventions: Surgery can help to improve functionality by reducing physical barriers that impede movement.
- Therapy and exercise: Physical activity and therapy can help people with different types of paralysis regain some physical functions by building new pathways in their brains.
Life beyond the Injury
Even when paralysis strikes, there’s still a chance for relief. New scientific breakthroughs are emerging all the time, leaving you with the opportunity to vastly improve your quality of life. Moreover, if medical malpractice is to blame for the injury you or someone you love has suffered, you more than likely have a credible case for legal action.
Though you may initially balk at the idea of resorting to such lengths, it could mean that financial relief is right around the corner. After all, medical costs tied to spinal cord and brain injuries remain high. Don’t miss out on the chance to alleviate the strain that so often follows a life-altering injury.
Additionally, therapists and support groups are extremely helpful for anymore assistance needed when it comes to coping with paralysis. Talk to your doctor and use some of the resources provided on websites that specialize in paralysis.
Written by Spinal Cord TeamSpinalCord.com has been created as a resource for patients of spinal cord injuries and their families. Find everything you need to learn more about your injury, locate a doctor or treatment center, or discover financial relief to support you through this difficult time.
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