Nearly 5.6 million people in the US alone live with paralysis of some kind day to day, which works out to nearly 1 in every 50 people. Despite being such a common medical condition, the exact mechanism underlying paralysis is varied, complex, and as with most symptoms originating in the brain, not especially well understood.
The most common types of conditions that can lead to long-term paralysis include spinal cord injuries, broken neck, nerve-damaging diseases, and autoimmune diseases. The initial cause of these conditions are numerous. Everything from stroke to car crash to workplace injury to progressive autoimmune disease can result in living with paralysis. Paralysis can be localized--as in only occurring in a specific region like a limb or the face--or generalized in form. Generally paralysis is considered a chronic, life-long condition, but there are certain select circumstances where it can be temporary and symptoms can improve over time.
But how does something like paralysis occur? To answer that, it’s important to understand the central nervous system.
Essentially, the central nervous system is made up of a combination of the brain and the spinal cord, and operates by way of nerve cells, or neurons, that make up a web of interconnected signal relays throughout the body. To understand how monumental the central nervous system is to the body consider this statistic: the brain itself utilizes about 20 percent of the total oxygen breathed in, all while accounting for only 2 percent of the body’s total mass. Consisting of over 100 billion intermeshed neurons, the brain is rightly viewed as one of, if not the most complex organ in the human body.
The central nervous system is responsible for controlling all manner of physical responses in the body, both conscious movement and internal processes such as breathing, heart rate, hormone release, and body temperature. In order for the electrical relay to function properly, neurons must be protected by healthy glial cells. Glial cells, or neuralgia, support nerve cells in a variety of ways, including as an anchor between neurons and the blood supply, supporting the creation of the myelin sheaths that insulate electrical signals, providing a scaffolding on which neurons can grow, and in lining brain ventricles to supply cerebrospinal fluid. When there is significant damage to any portion of the central nervous system, that is when paralysis is likely to occur. A damaged neuron can no longer transmit a signal up or down the neuron chain between the brain and the limbs, so motor control is effectively dampened or entirely silenced.
There are, however, a multitude of options for paralysis treatment and support.
Mobility equipment such as wheelchairs, limb braces, and exterior supports can help people living with paralysis to remain autonomous and active. Physiotherapy with a trained physical therapist can aid in maintaining limb strength and muscle mass. Occupational therapy provides a way for people living with paralysis to adapt to everyday life at home and work through tasks that may prove challenging. And of course there is a whole market of medicine designed to relieve pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms associated with paralysis.
As an emerging field of study, neurologists and physicians alike are sure to discover further therapeutic options in the future to augment and improve everyday life for people living with paralysis.