Paralysis is the loss of the ability to move some or all of the body.
It can have lots of different causes, some of which can be serious. Depending on the cause, it may be temporary or permanent.
The main symptom of paralysis is the inability to move part of your body, or not being able to move at all.
It can start suddenly or gradually. Sometimes it comes and goes.
Paralysis can affect any part of the body, including:
- the face
- the hands
- one arm or leg (monoplegia)
- one side of the body (hemiplegia)
- both legs (paraplegia)
- both arms and legs (tetraplegia or quadriplegia)
The affected part of the your body may also be:
- stiff (spastic paralysis), with occasional muscle spasms
- floppy (flaccid paralysis)
- numb, painful or tingly
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have paralysis or weakness that:
- started gradually
- is getting slowly worse
- comes and goes
Your GP can do some tests to see what the cause might be.
They may refer you to a hospital specialist for more tests if they're unsure what's causing your symptoms.
When to get emergency help
Call 999 for an ambulance if you or someone else has paralysis or weakness that:
- starts suddenly
- starts after a serious injury, such as a fall or car crash
- causes problems with speech, breathing or swallowing
These problems could be a sign of something serious that needs to be treated in hospital straight away.
There are many possible causes of paralysis.
But don't try to identify the cause yourself. See a doctor to get a proper diagnosis.
Some of the main causes of paralysis are:
- sudden weakness on one side of the face, with arm weakness or slurred speech – a stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA or "mini-stroke")
- sudden weakness on one side of the face, with earache or face pain – Bell's palsy
- temporary paralysis when waking up or falling asleep – sleep paralysis
- paralysis after a serious accident or injury – a severe head injury or spinal cord (back) injury
- weakness in the face, arms or legs that comes and goes – multiple sclerosis or, less commonly, myasthenia gravis or hypokalaemia periodic paralysis
Other causes of paralysis include:
- gradual weakness on one side of the body – a brain tumour
- gradual weakness in the legs – hereditary spastic paraplegia, Friedreich's ataxia or muscular dystrophy
- gradual weakness in the arms and legs – motor neurone disease, spinal muscular atrophy or Lambert-Eaton mysathenic syndrome
- paralysis in the legs that spreads to the arms and face over a few days or weeks – Guillain-Barré syndrome
- paralysis from birth – cerebral palsy, spina bifida or spinal muscular atrophy
- paralysis that starts in the weeks, months or years after a tick bite – Lyme disease
- paralysis that starts many years after a polio infection – post-polio syndrome
Treatment and support
Paralysis can have a big impact on your life, but support is available to help you live as independently as you can and have the best possible quality of life.
The help you need will largely depend on what's causing your paralysis.
Some of the things that can help people who are paralysed include:
- mobility equipment – such as wheelchairs and limb supports (braces)
- physiotherapy to help you maintain as much strength and muscle mass as you can
- occupational therapy to help adapt your home so everyday tasks like dressing and cooking are easier
- medicines to relieve problems such as pain, stiffness and muscle spasms
For more information about the help and support available, see:
- Living with a disability
- Your guide to care and support
- Disabled Living Foundation
- GOV.UK: help and advice for disabled people
- Headway: the brain injury association
Page last reviewed: 09/11/2017
Next review due: 09/11/2020