Post-Polio Syndrome

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This article was last updated on 4/30/2007.
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Topic Overview

What is post-polio syndrome?

Illustration of a nerve cellPost-polio syndrome is an illness in the nervous system. It can arise 15 to 50 years after you had polio. It affects your muscles and nerves, and it causes you to have low energy, fatigue, and muscle or joint pain. But there are ways you can stay active with this condition.

Only people who have had polio can get post-polio syndrome. But having post-polio syndrome doesn't mean that you have polio again. Unlike polio, post-polio syndrome does not spread from person to person.

What causes it?

Post-polio syndrome most likely arises from the damage left over from having polio.

The polio virus harms the nerves that control muscles, and it makes the muscles weak. If you had polio, you may have gained back the use of your muscles. But the nerves that connect to the muscles could be damaged without your knowing it. The nerves may break down over time and cause you to have weak muscles again.

Researchers are studying other possible causes of post-polio syndrome. One theory is that the immune system plays a role.1

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of post-polio syndrome tend to show up very slowly. The main symptoms are new muscle weakness, fatigue, and pain in the muscles and joints. Muscles that had nerve damage from polio may get weak and waste away because of post-polio syndrome. With post-polio syndrome, muscles that you didn't realize had been affected by polio may have weakness.

Some people with post-polio syndrome also have problems with swallowing, breathing, sleeping, and tolerating cold temperatures.

How is post-polio syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors identify post-polio syndrome by checking your medical history and current signs of illness. They look at how polio affected you and how well you healed from it. Lab tests can check for other possible causes of your symptoms. You may need to have repeated health exams if new symptoms arise.

How is it treated?

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that you may have for the rest of your life. The aim of treatment is to help you control symptoms and learn ways to stay active in spite of your muscle weakness. You can manage your symptoms with a balance of physical activity and rest, ice and heat, pain medicine, and a healthy diet. Some people use canes, braces, and physical therapy. All of these things can help you stay active.

Who is at risk for post-polio syndrome?

It is hard to predict who will get symptoms, when symptoms will begin, and how severe they will be. The exact amount of time it takes for symptoms to start is different for each person. Symptoms can occur as soon as 15 years after you had polio. But most people who had polio don't get post-polio syndrome.

You are more likely to get post-polio syndrome if you:

  • Had polio when you were a teen or an adult.
  • Had breathing problems when you had polio.
  • Are a woman.
  • Have had serious, lasting muscle weakness from polio.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about post-polio syndrome:

Being diagnosed:

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Living with post-polio syndrome:

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Author: Debby Golonka, MPHLast Updated: April 30, 2007
Medical Review: Martin Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Colin Chalk, MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology

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