TIRR Memorial Hermann traces its roots back to the early 1950s when the polio epidemic was at its height in the United States. Today clinicians affiliated with the rehabilitation hospital provide care for people with post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects 25% to 40% of polio survivors according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In 2016, approximately 315,000 polio survivors were estimated to be living, with 85% over the age of 65.
“Symptoms of post-polio syndrome can appear 10 to 40 years after the initial illness,” says Lisa Wenzel, MD, an attending physician in the Spinal Cord Injury and Neuromuscular Rehabilitation programs at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “The most common symptoms of post-polio syndrome include slowly progressive muscle weakness, generalized and muscular fatigue, and muscle atrophy. Pain from joint degeneration and increasing skeletal deformities is common and may precede the weakness and muscle atrophy.”
Post-polio syndrome is rarely life-threatening, but its symptoms can significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to function independently. Respiratory muscle weakness, for instance, can result in breathing problems, affecting daytime functions and sleep. Weakness in swallowing muscles can result in aspiration of food and liquids into the lungs, causing pneumonia.
“While most of the people we see at the clinic are over the age of 65, we’re also seeing quite a few younger foreign-born individuals, some in their 20s and 30s,” says Carolyn Da Silva, PT, DSc, a professor at Texas Woman’s University and physical therapist at the TIRR Memorial Hermann Post-polio Clinic. “Viral polio is still active in the world, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with oral vaccine-derived cases of polio in other parts of the world.”
Post-polio physicians and therapists affiliated with TIRR Memorial Hermann help patients maintain function and ensure quality of life through therapy, exercise under the supervision of an experienced health professional, lifestyle changes and education, support groups and counseling for individuals and families.
“There is no pattern to the types of weakness people with post-polio syndrome experience,” Da Silva says. “These folks have intact sensation so they can feel their limbs. As a result, they learn strategies to compensate for weak muscles with less use of orthoses than other patient populations. During and after the epidemic there was great stigma associated with the polio disease itself and the disability it caused. Because of their less mature immune systems, mostly children were infected by polio. These kids grew up being taught not to be a burden on their families, classmates and friends, and were pushed to achieve. Polio survivors have a higher educational level than the average population. They have Type A personalities, so it’s difficult for them to step back and look at what they’re doing to exacerbate their pain and other symptoms of post-polio syndrome. They’re terribly afraid of losing their independence. We help them find smarter ways to do things to lessen the symptoms and preserve their independence and quality of life.”
To learn more about the Post-Polio Clinic, call us at (800) 447-3422.