Post-Polio Syndrome

What Is It?

Post-polio syndrome is an illness defined by a collection of symptoms that generally occur at least 10-20 years after infection with the polio virus. The hallmark of post-polio syndrome is new muscular weakness. This may present as weakness in the arms, legs, or trunk or difficulty with swallowing, talking or breathing if the muscles that control these functions are affected. Other symptoms of post-polio syndrome include muscle pain, fatigue and cold intolerance. It is not uncommon for polio survivors to have new weakness in muscles that were previously believed to be unaffected by polio. This may be because they really weren't sure which muscles were affected many years before, or because muscles were so mildly affected at first that doctors didn't detect it on physical examination at the time of the polio virus infection.

Polio is a disease caused by an infection with the poliovirus. From the early 20th Century through the 1960's in the United States, epidemics of polio affected many people. The creation of polio vaccines has practically eliminated polio in the United States, and most of the developed nations of the world. However, people in the U.S. and elsewhere who were infected by the virus before vaccines were developed can develop post-polio syndrome.

To understand post-polio syndrome, you need to understand what happens in polio. In a small number of cases of polio (less than 10%), the virus will attack the cells in the spinal cord and cause paralysis. However, many people who were infected by the poliovirus did not develop paralysis. Fortunately, many just had typical symptoms of an infection — fever, aching muscles, fatigue, etc. — that lasted a few days, and thereafter regained complete health.

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