When something disrupts nerve signals to muscles, you may experience paralysis — being unable to make voluntary movements. Common causes of paralysis include strokes, spinal cord injuries and nerve disorders like multiple sclerosis. Bell’s palsy causes temporary facial paralysis. Paraplegia involves both legs, while quadriplegia affects all limbs.
Paralysis occurs when you’re unable to make voluntary muscle movements. A nervous system problem causes paralysis.
Uninjured nerves send signals to muscles. Those signals make muscles move. When you’re paralyzed, or have paralysis, you can’t move certain parts of your body.
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Approximately 1 in 50 Americans, or 5.4 million people, have some form of paralysis.
Some people experience temporary paralysis and regain partial or full movement over time. For example, Bell’s palsy temporarily paralyzes facial muscles. Palsy is the name for paralysis accompanied by tremors.
Permanent paralysis means you never regain muscle control. The condition is irreversible.
Paralysis can affect any part of the body. It can be:
Paralysis can also be broken down into two types based on the site of injury in the nervous system:
Localized paralysis affects a small section of the body. It most commonly affects the face, hands, feet or vocal cords.
Generalized paralysis affects a larger area. Healthcare providers categorize generalized paralysis based on the extent of paralysis:
A problem with the nervous system causes paralysis. The nervous system is your body’s command and communication system. It sends signals from the brain throughout your body, telling it what to do. If something damages the nervous system, messages can’t get through to muscles.
If you have paralysis, you are partly or entirely unable to move the affected parts of the body. Paralysis may be accompanied by a loss of sensation depending on the location of the injury. Strokes and spinal cord injuries cause sudden paralysis.
Some medical conditions can cause gradual paralysis. You may experience:
Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about any injuries. For gradual paralysis, you’ll talk about when you began noticing the problem. To learn more, your healthcare provider may order one or more of these tests:
Paralysis can affect other bodily functions like breathing and heart rate. The condition can also involve other body systems in the affected area. Depending on the type of paralysis, you may be at risk for:
There isn’t a cure for permanent paralysis. The spinal cord can’t heal itself. Temporary paralysis like Bell’s palsy often goes away over time without treatment.
Physical, occupational and speech therapy can accommodate paralysis and provide exercises, adaptive and assistive devices to improve function. These rehabilitation services can help people with all types of paralysis live independently and enjoy a better quality of life.
Other care depends on the cause of paralysis and how it affects you. Your healthcare provider may recommend rehabilitation along with:
Spinal injuries are a leading cause of paralysis. You can lower your chances of spinal injury by taking these steps:
Learning to live with paralysis is challenging. It can cause dramatic changes to your life, activities and self-image. These changes can result in mental health issues and depression. Talk with your healthcare provider about getting physical and emotional support.
Over time, and with rehabilitation, many people with paralysis learn to adapt. Many people lead independent, active lives with paralysis. People with quadriplegia need lifelong help from others, but their minds can stay active.
You should call 911 if you have signs of stroke or if someone has a possible head, neck or spine injury. Otherwise, call your healthcare provider if you experience:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
Paralysis is a life-changing condition. Even temporary paralysis can affect your ability to do the things you love. If paralysis occurs suddenly, it can be challenging to adjust to major changes to your way of life. Your healthcare provider can guide you as you choose among the many available rehabilitation and mental health services. Many people with paralysis enjoy active lives with mobility devices and the support of loved ones.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/10/2021.
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