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Post-Polio Syndrome - Topic Overview

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What is post-polio syndrome?

Post-polio syndrome is an illness of the nervous system that can appear 15 to 50 years after you had polio. It affects your muscles and nerves, and it causes you to have weakness, fatigue, and muscle or joint pain.

Although post-polio syndrome can make some day-to-day activities more difficult, treatment can help control symptoms and help you stay active. Your symptoms may not get worse for many years. Post-polio syndrome usually progresses very slowly.

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 doesn't spread from person to person.

What causes post-polio syndrome?

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.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of post-polio syndrome tend to show up very slowly. The main symptoms are:

  • New muscle weakness. This is most common in the muscles that had nerve damage from polio. You may also have weakness in muscles that you didn't realize had been affected by polio. Overuse or underuse of the muscles can lead to weakness.
  • Fatigue. You may find that the activities you used to do without getting tired are now causing fatigue. You may often feel tired, have a heavy feeling in your muscles, or feel sleepy. At times you may have trouble thinking clearly.
  • Muscle or joint pain. Muscles affected by polio tend to be weaker than normal. To make up for this weakness, other muscles have to work harder. This puts extra wear and tear on muscles, joints, and tendons, sometimes leading to aches, cramping, and pain.

Depending on which muscles are affected, this trio of muscle weakness, fatigue, and pain can make daily activities more difficult. For example, people with shoulder or arm weakness may have trouble getting dressed. People who have weakness in their legs may have trouble walking or climbing stairs.

Some people who have post-polio syndrome also have problems with swallowing, sleeping, and tolerating cold temperatures. Or they may need help to improve their breathing.

How is post-polio syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose post-polio syndrome based on your symptoms, medical history, and lab tests. Your doctor will look at how polio affected you and how well you healed from it. Lab tests will be done to check for other causes of your symptoms. If your symptoms and history point to post-polio syndrome, and if tests cannot find another cause, then your doctor may diagnose post-polio syndrome.

You may need to have more tests or exams if your symptoms change.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 08, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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