Paralysis is the loss of muscle function – the muscles no longer work or move as you want them to. With paralysis, you may lose sensation or feeling in the affected area, but this isn’t always the case. The extent of the paralysis depends upon what caused it. It can be due to trauma (ex: an accident), an illness (ex: multiple sclerosis), an infection (ex: tranverse myelitis), or other disorders, such as spina bifida or stroke. Paralyzed muscles can be anywhere in the body, from facial paralysis, like what is caused by Bell’s palsy, to quadraplegia, which affects both the arms and legs, as well as some chest muscles.
Sepsis is an illness that can develop in some people with paralysis. Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly inflammatory response to infection. Once sepsis sets in, it can progress to septic shock and death.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly) and/or amputations.
Why are people with paralysis at higher risk of developing sepsis?
People with paralysis can be at higher risk of developing infections for a variety of reasons.
- Loss of movement and/or sensation: Loss of movement or sensation can make it easier for the affected body part to be injured, such as being cut or burned, and injuries like this may also not be immediately noticed. The longer an injury isn’t noticed, the longer it will take before it is treated. If an infection does set in, it might not be felt or noticed until it has progressed. Decreased movement can lead to pressure sores that can become infected. Also, decreased or loss of sensation can also make it hard for people to notice that they have an internal infection, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI).
- Inability or difficulty communicating: Some people with paralysis may have difficulty communicating that they feel pain or discomfort from an injury or an infection. Presence of other conditions: Depending on what has caused the paralysis and the parts of the body involved, people with paralysis can be at high risk for secondary conditions, such as urinary incontinence (involuntary release of urine) or urine retention (inability to empty the bladder of urine), which can increase their risk of developing a UTI.
- Subtle differences in vital signs. Some people who have paralysis may have unusual fluctuations (differences) in vital signs (pulse, respirations, and blood pressure) from people who do not have paralysis. This may make it harder for healthcare professionals to recognize signs of an infection.
The only way to prevent sepsis is to prevent infections or to treat them as quickly and effectively as possible. Universally, this means:
- Frequent hand washing
- Vaccinations against preventable illnesses
- Prompt identification and treatment of infections
- For people with paralysis, there are some extra steps that are vital in preventing infection.
- Checking for pressure spots: For those who are use wheelchairs or aids, such as braces or splints, thorough skin checks for pressure spots is vital. Proper and frequent positioning and repositioning of people who are in bed for extended periods of time is essential to prevent pressure sores.
- Good technique for self-catheterization: Clean technique and monitoring urine for signs of infection are vital in reducing the risk of infection.
- Hygiene: Caregivers who must change briefs should always use gloves and wash their hands thoroughly after removing their gloves. They should also help the paralyzed individual to bathe carefully to make sure that their skin stays clean and is thoroughly dried.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is a downloadable format for easier printing.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Updated December 13, 2017