Post-polio syndrome (PPS) refers to a cluster of potentially disabling signs and symptoms that appear decades — an average of 30 to 40 years — after the initial polio illness.
Polio was once one of the most feared diseases in America, responsible for paralysis and death. Shortly after polio reached its peak in the early 1950s, the inactivated polio vaccine was introduced and greatly reduced polio's spread.
Today, few people in developed countries get paralytic polio, thanks to the polio vaccine.
According to some studies, however, up to half the people who had polio at a young age may experience certain effects of the disease many years later — post-polio syndrome.
Common signs and symptoms of post-polio syndrome include:
In most people, post-polio syndrome tends to progress slowly, with new signs and symptoms followed by periods of stability.
When to see a doctor
Nobody knows exactly what causes the signs and symptoms of post-polio syndrome to appear so many years after the first episode of polio. Currently, the most accepted theory regarding the cause of post-polio syndrome rests on the idea of degenerating nerve cells.
When poliovirus infects your body, it affects nerve cells called motor neurons — particularly those in your spinal cord — that carry messages (electrical impulses) between your brain and your muscles.
Each neuron consists of three basic components:
A polio infection often leaves many of these motor neurons destroyed or damaged. To compensate for the resulting neuron shortage, the remaining neurons sprout new fibers, and the surviving motor units become enlarged. This promotes recovery of the use of your muscles, but it also places added stress on the nerve cell body to nourish the additional fibers. Over the years, this stress may be more than the neuron can handle, leading to the gradual deterioration of the sprouted fibers and, eventually, of the neuron itself.
Another theory is that the initial illness may have created an autoimmune reaction, causing the body's immune system to attack normal cells as if they were foreign substances.
Nerve cell (neuron)
Each nerve cell (neuron) consists of four basic components: a neuron cell body, a nucleus, a major branching fiber (axon) and numerous smaller branching fibers (dendrites). Nerve cells communicate ...
Factors that may increase your risk of developing post-polio syndrome include:
Generally, post-polio syndrome is rarely life-threatening, but severe muscle weakness can lead to complications:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner when you first notice your symptoms. However, you'll probably be referred to a doctor who specializes in nervous system disorders (neurologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For post-polio syndrome, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Indicators of post-polio syndrome
In addition, because the signs and symptoms of post-polio syndrome are similar to those commonly associated with other disorders, your doctor will attempt to exclude other possible causes, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and scoliosis.
Some people with post-polio syndrome worry that they may be getting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig's disease. But the late effects of polio are not a form of ALS.
Tests to rule out other conditions
Treatments and drugs
Because the signs and symptoms often vary, there's no one specific treatment for post-polio syndrome. The goal of treatment is to manage your symptoms and help make you as comfortable and independent as possible:
Lifestyle and home remedies
Having to deal again with an illness you thought was in the past can be discouraging, even overwhelming at times. Recovering from the initial illness required drive and determination on your part, but now the late effects of polio require you to rest and conserve your energy. Moving from one frame of mind to another can be difficult. Here are some suggestions that may help:
Coping and support
Dealing with the fatigue and weakness of post-polio syndrome can be difficult, physically and psychologically. You may need to lean on your friends and family for support. In most cases, they're probably already looking for ways to help you, and you can help them by telling them how.
You may even consider joining a support group for people with post-polio syndrome. Sometimes, just talking things over with people who have similar problems enables you to better cope with the challenges at hand. You can contact Post-Polio Health International to find out about support groups in your area.
Last Updated: 2011-03-03
© 1998-2016 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use