What is Post-Polio Syndrome?

Lindsay Kahl

Post-polio syndrome is a complication that can occur in individuals who have had a poliomyelitis infection. Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system and can lead to paralysis in some people. Post-polio syndrome typically occurs many years after the initial polio infection and causes more severe muscular problems. Medical practitioners do not know what causes the syndrome to develop in individuals who have had polio.

It is commonly believed that President Franklin Roosevelt was wheelchair bound due to post-polio syndrome.
It is commonly believed that President Franklin Roosevelt was wheelchair bound due to post-polio syndrome.

The symptoms of post-polio syndrome include increased muscular weakness, pain and fatigue. Individuals also might notice muscular atrophy, which is when the muscle mass partially or completely wastes away. Symptoms can occur in muscles that previously had been damaged by the polio infection, or they could affect muscles that previously had been functional and undamaged. Individuals might also experience further complications, such as breathing or swallowing difficulties, because of muscle degeneration.

Post-polio syndrome is a progressive condition, so an individual might notice symptoms developing very slowly. The severity of the syndrome usually is congruent with the severity of the initial polio infection. If an individual had a severe case of polio, he or she is likely to have a more severe case of post-polio syndrome.

The syndrome can be very difficult for medical practitioners to diagnose because the symptoms are so similar to possible complications from the initial polio infection and other medical conditions. A physician likely would conduct a neuromuscular exam to exclude other possible conditions and likely would conduct a thorough medical history as well. The major criteria for consideration are whether the patient previously had a polio infection followed by a period of recovery and whether the patient has complained of a gradual onset of symptoms.

Patients can take steps to manage their symptoms, though there is no specific treatment for post-polio syndrome. A doctor might recommend adequate rest and pain relief. Some individuals might choose to use electric wheelchairs or other assistive devices to facilitate activity. A medical practitioner might recommend endurance training to strengthen certain muscle groups.

There is no way to prevent post-polio syndrome from occurring in people who have suffered a polio infection, and there is no way of knowing which individuals will be affected by it. The syndrome typically is not life-threatening, with the exception of patients with severe respiratory complications from muscle atrophy. Individuals with polio are encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including ample rest, proper diet, appropriate exercise and the avoidance of unhealthy habits.

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