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Spastic vs Flaccid Paralysis: Understanding Loss of Muscle Function & How to Treat It

doctor examining patient's leg to determine spastic vs flaccid paralysis

Paralysis refers to the complete or partial loss of muscle function. A neurological injury such as stroke or spinal cord injury can cause different types of paralysis, including spastic paralysis (caused by increased muscle tone) and flaccid paralysis (caused by reduced muscle tone). Knowing how to distinguish between spastic vs flaccid paralysis is important in order to receive proper treatment and maximize the chances of recovery.

This article will differentiate spastic vs flaccid paralysis and discuss the best methods to promote movement in the affected muscles.

How Does the Nervous System Control Muscle Movement?

To understand the difference between spastic vs flaccid paralysis, it first helps to understand how the nervous system contributes to muscle movement.

The nervous system consists of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord, which are the planning, coordinating, and organizing centers that control most of our daily activities. The peripheral nervous system branches out from the spinal cord, connecting the central nervous system to the rest of the body. It carries signals from the brain to the muscles to tell them to contract or relax, and also transmits signals regarding sensation back to the brain for processing.

Motor neurons play a vital role in carrying signals regarding muscle movement, creating complex circuits throughout the body and transmitting signals regarding both voluntary and involuntary movement.

In order to activate the muscles, signals are transmitted sequentially through the following pathway:

  • Motor cortex of the brain (initiates motor signals)
  • Upper motor neuron (transmits motor signals from the brain through the spinal cord)
  • Lower motor neuron (connects with upper motor neuron in the spinal cord, then transmits motor signals to muscles throughout the body)

When certain parts of this neural pathway become damaged, spastic or flaccid paralysis may occur. Paralysis refers to the loss of motor function in one or multiple parts of the body.

For example, when upper motor neurons sustain damage, spasticity (muscle stiffness) or spastic paralysis may occur. On the other hand, damage to lower motor neurons may result in weakness, loss of muscle, twitching, or flaccid paralysis.

What Causes Paralysis?

Paralysis can develop due to many conditions that affect the nervous system. Studies have shown that stroke and spinal cord injury are the leading causes of paralysis, contributing to 33.7% and 27.3% of paralysis cases, respectively. Some other causes include multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury.

Paralysis after a stroke occurs when areas of the brain responsible for motor control become damaged. Each hemisphere of the brain controls movement on the opposite side of the body. Therefore, when a stroke causes paralysis, it often leads to hemiplegia, or paralysis on either the right or left side of the body, opposite the location of brain damage.

Paralysis after a spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord is damaged and nerves can no longer send signals to the brain. This can cause paraplegia (paralysis in the lower limbs) or quadriplegia (paralysis in all four limbs).

Depending on the severity and location of the stroke or spinal cord injury, survivors may experience spastic or flaccid paralysis.

Differentiating Between Spastic vs Flaccid Paralysis

Though spastic paralysis and flaccid paralysis are both neurological disorders that interfere with voluntary muscle movement, they are two highly distinct types of paralysis.

One key difference is that in spastic paralysis, the muscles remain in constant contraction and become rigid and immobile. On the other hand, in flaccid paralysis, the muscles cannot contract and as a result become floppy and immobile. Although the underlying cause differs, in both flaccid and spastic paralysis, the muscles lose mobility.

Spastic paralysis can occur when the upper motor neurons become damaged, resulting in a loss of voluntary control over the affected muscles. With spastic paralysis, the signals that tell the muscles to contract or relax are imbalanced. The muscles respond to this by becoming tight and hard. As a result, survivors may experience muscle stiffness, spasms, or uncontrollable twitching.

Flaccid paralysis can occur when the lower motor neurons become damaged, not allowing nerve impulses to reach the intended muscles. There is no voluntary control of the muscles in flaccid paralysis but there isn’t any involuntary control either, meaning the muscles don’t act at all. Flaccid paralysis reduces muscle tone, the amount of tension or resistance to movement in the muscle. It also causes muscles to shrink and become loose or flabby.

Spastic paralysis and flaccid paralysis each have unique characteristics. Learning how to differentiate them is important to receive proper treatment.

How Passive Exercises Can Help Improve Spastic and Flaccid Paralysis

Damage from a neurological injury can affect the neural pathways within the nervous system, resulting in spastic or flaccid paralysis. To strengthen the existing neural connections and create new ones, neuroplasticity must be activated.

Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s ability to heal and rewire itself. Restoring connections means better communication between the nervous system and the muscles. This helps maximize the chances of restoring movement and improving paralysis.

Neuroplasticity is best activated through massed practice, or high repetition of exercises. The more a certain skill is performed, the more the nervous system will recognize its importance and restore neural pathways for that skill.

The best way to exercise if you have limited or no mobility is with passive exercise. While active exercises are performed using your own energy, passive exercises involve assistance from your unaffected limbs or the help of a trained caregiver or therapist. 

Even if you cannot move your muscles yourself, passive exercises help send signals to the nervous system to stimulate neuroplasticity, which is essential for spastic and flaccid paralysis rehabilitation.

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Treating Spastic vs Flaccid Paralysis

Treatment for spastic vs flaccid paralysis may vary depending on the severity. However, both are equally necessary to treat in a timely manner in order to prevent further injury or complications.

If flaccid paralysis is left untreated, the muscles can begin to atrophy (reduce in size and waste away). If spastic paralysis is left untreated, it can lead to frozen joints, shortened tendons and limbs that can no longer be stretched out.

More serious complications, such as contractures or pressure sores on the skin, can also develop if paralysis is neglected. To reduce the chances of spastic or flaccid paralysis worsening or developing serious complications, it’s crucial to have a suitable rehabilitation exercise plan.

This can include a combination of therapy exercises for spastic and flaccid paralysis such as:

  • Passive Range of Motion Exercise: stimulates the nervous system and activates neuroplasticity. Most rehab exercises can be converted into passive exercises with the help of your unaffected limbs or a therapist. Passive exercise generally focuses on moving the affected joints through their full range of motion. This is especially helpful for spastic paralysis to help prevent contractures and pressure sores, increase muscle flexibility, and reduce muscle stiffness and spasticity. Individuals with flaccid paralysis can also benefit from passive range of motion exercises to boost chances of recovery.
  • Physical Therapy: focuses on improving functional mobility in the affected muscles through targeted exercises. Movement is crucial to stimulate the nervous system, prevent muscle atrophy, and lower the risk of other complications from paralysis.
  • Occupational Therapy: focuses on restorative and compensatory strategies to perform daily activities and maximize independence. Daily activities can become challenging with spastic or flaccid paralysis but there are many effective occupational therapy techniques that can help you accomplish your daily goals, such as turning a light switch on and off. Adaptive equipment can also be helpful when using your unaffected muscles to eat or bathe.
  • Home Therapy Exercises: focuses on motivating you to achieve high repetition of exercises and stimulate neuroplasticity in between your outpatient therapy sessions. Along with exercise sheets, home therapy may include use of neurorehabilitation devices such as FitMi and MusicGlove, which can be used passively to help improve flaccid and spastic paralysis.

Along with paralysis recovery exercises, some individuals may benefit from other types of treatment. Depending on the severity of paralysis, this can include: 

  • Medication: Secondary complications of paralysis such as pain and depression can interfere with the motivation needed to pursue rehabilitation. To help reduce pain and/or depression doctors may prescribe pain relievers or antidepressants. They may also prescribe muscle relaxants for spastic paralysis due to the increase in muscle tone.
  • Splints or Orthotic Devices: Individuals experiencing paralysis often benefit from the use of splints or orthotic devices to promote proper muscle alignment, stabilize the joints, and/or gently stretch spastic muscles. Consult with your doctor or therapist about which type of orthotic could be right for you.
  • Botox: Botulinum toxin, or Botox, helps treat spasticity and relax stiff muscles, and therefore may be helpful with spastic paralysis but not with flaccid paralysis. It works by blocking the nerve impulses that cause muscles to involuntarily contract.
  • Surgery: Studies have shown that advanced nerve surgery techniques alongside physical therapy may help treat paralysis after a spinal cord injury, particularly in the hands and arms. Surgery is highly invasive and should only be considered when all other treatments have been exhausted.
  • Electrical Stimulation: This is a promising treatment for flaccid and spastic paralysis. During electrical stimulation, electrodes are placed on the surface of the skin over the affected muscles. Then, a therapist will apply electrical stimulation while controlling the strength and frequency using a device. Electrical impulses help the muscles contract and promote movement. Studies have shown that electrical stimulation combined with rehab exercise is even more effective than rehab exercise alone.
  • Electroacupuncture: This is a combination of acupuncture and electrical stimulation. It works by inserting thin needles into specific points on your body and then electrical stimulation is gently applied to the needles. The more stimulation your body receives, the more it can help activate the nervous system and promote movement in your muscles.

Orthotic devices, electrical stimulation and electroacupuncture are most effective when combined with therapy exercises. Speak to your therapist to learn what treatment combination is safe and suitable for your condition.

Understanding Spastic vs Flaccid Paralysis

Stroke and spinal cord injury are the two leading causes of paralysis. Differentiating between spastic vs flaccid paralysis is important in order to obtain a proper rehabilitation plan. Your combination of treatments may vary depending on the type and severity of your paralysis. However, all individuals can benefit from passive exercises that help stimulate the nervous system and activate neuroplasticity.

We hope this article has helped you understand how spastic vs flaccid paralysis can develop and encouraged you to find a suitable home therapy exercise regimen.

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Mom gets better every day!

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She lights up when we bring it out and enjoys using it for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. While she still doesn’t have enough strength to perform some of the exercises, she rocks the ones she can do! Thanks for creating such powerful tools to help those of us caring for stroke patients. What you do really matters!”

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Saw results within a few days

“I bought FitMi about a month and a half ago. Quite impressed with the range of exercises for hand, arm, leg and foot. I suffered a stroke about 2 years ago which paralyzed my right side. I do walk now with a cane or walker, but my right hand curls up and my right arm is also weak. Within a few days of trying it out, I could note a distinct improvement in stamina before tiring. So, I am looking forward to continued improvement.”


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