Polio may sound like an old-fashioned disease that people don’t get any more, and in many countries it has been eradicated. However, there are places where polio remains a problem, and with daily international travel, you may meet polio patients who aren’t elderly. The majority of American post-polio sufferers are older people.
Post-polio syndrome (PPS) occurs in people who previously recovered from acute poliomyelitis. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 440,000 people in the U.S. are at risk of developing PPS. Studies vary, but it is estimated that anywhere from 20-60 percent of polio patients may develop PPS.
Symptoms range from mild to severe, and may include:
• Progressive muscle weakness
• Generalized and muscle fatigue
• Joint pain
• Muscle atrophy
While PPS is not usually life threatening, it can cause weakness in the muscles necessary for breathing and swallowing, leading to aspiration pneumonia and difficulty breathing properly. PPS symptoms usually occur at least 15 years after the original bout of polio. Although the symptoms can feel similar to polio itself, PPS is not contagious like polio.
It is thought that PPS may be related to both normal aging in polio survivors and overtaxing the nerve networks created during polio recovery. Ideally people who think they may be developing PPS should work with a health care team that is familiar with this condition, as it is not something most providers see on a regular basis.
Diagnosis of PPS is made by a thorough history and physical as well as exclusion of other possible neuromuscular illness. At this time there is no known way to prevent or cure PPS, but it can be managed. Physical therapy can assist in maintaining function and strength. Pacing of activities and getting plenty of rest is important in managing fatigue that can be severe. It may be necessary to scale back activities such as work and housework, and assistive devices like canes, scooters and bracing can be helpful.
Pain is managed with a combination of assistive devices, medications, ice/heat and massage. Yoga may help with strength, flexibility, and pain relief. Weight loss and a healthy diet can also be beneficial.
March of Dimes: Post-Polio Syndrome
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Post-Polio Syndrome Fact Sheet