Post-polio syndrome is a poorly understood condition that can affect people who have had polio in the past.

Polio is a viral infection thatused to be common in the UK, but is rarenowadays.

Most people who had polio would have fought off the infection without even realising they were infected.

Some people with polio would have had paralysis , muscle weakness and shrinking of the muscles. But usually, these problems would have eithergone awayover the following weeks or months, or remained the same for years afterwards.

Post-polio syndrome is where some ofthese symptomsreturn or get worse many years or decades after the original polio infection.

Symptoms of post-polio syndrome

Post-polio syndrome can include a wide range of symptoms that develop gradually over time, including:

  • persistent fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • muscle weakness
  • shrinking muscles
  • muscle and jointpain
  • sleep apnoea

The conditioncanhave a significant impact on everyday life, makingitvery difficult to get aroundand carry out certain tasks and activities.

The symptoms tend to getgradually worse over many years, but this happens very slowly and treatment may help slow it down further.

The condition is rarely life-threatening, although some people develop breathing and swallowing difficulties that can lead to serious problems, such as chest infections .

It usually develops 15 to 40 years after the infection.

The condition hasbecome more common in the UK in recent years, because of the high number of polio cases that occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, before routine vaccination was introduced.

It's estimated that there are around 120,000 people living in the UK who survived polio when they were younger. Some of these have, or will develop, post-polio syndrome.

It'snot known exactly how manypolio survivorsare or will be affected by post-polio syndrome.Estimates vary from as low as 15% to as high as 80%

What causes post-polio syndrome?

The exactcause ofpost-polio syndromeis unclear. It's not known whether anything can be done to preventit.

The leading theoryis that it's the result of the gradual deterioration of nerve cells in the spinal cord (motor neurones) that were damaged by the polio virus. This would explain whythe condition can take years to appear.

Post-polio syndrome isn't contagious.The theory that the polio virus may lie dormant in yourbody, causingpost-polio syndrome when it becomes reactivated at a later stage, has been disproven.

It's not clear why only some people who have had poliodevelop post-polio syndrome. Those who had severe polio when they were younger may be more likely todevelop the condition.

How post-polio syndrome is treated

There's currently no cure for post-polio syndrome, butsupport and a range of treatments are available to helpmanage the symptoms and improve quality of life.

Some of the ways that symptoms ofpost-polio syndromemay be managed include with:

  • rest and exercise such as learning to stop activities before becoming exhausted
  • mobility aids such as walking sticks or scooters
  • weight control and healthy eating to avoid putting unnecessary strain on muscles and joints
  • painkilling medication to help relieve muscle or joint pain
  • psychologicalsupport such as discussions witha GP, on an online forum, or in a local support group


Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 4 Jan 2017