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Acute Poliomyelitis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Christine L Munson, MD; Chief Editor: Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA  more...
Updated: Feb 11, 2016


Most patients (95%) with poliomyelitis virus infections are asymptomatic or have only mild systemic symptoms, such as pharyngitis or gastroenteritis. These cases are referred to as minor illness or abortive poliomyelitis. The mild symptoms are related to viremia and immune response against dissemination of the virus. Only 5% of patients exhibit different severities of nervous system involvement, from nonparalytic poliomyelitis to the most severe form of paralytic poliomyelitis.[6]

  • Nonparalytic poliomyelitis or preparalytic poliomyelitis
    • The prodromal symptoms include generalized, nonthrobbing headache; fever of 38-40 º C; sore throat; anorexia; nausea; vomiting; and muscle aches. These symptoms may or may not subside in 1-2 weeks.
    • Headache and fever, as well as signs and symptoms of nervous system involvement (eg, irritability, restlessness, apprehensiveness, emotional instability, stiffness of the neck and back) and Kernig and Brudzinski signs because of meningitis, then may follow.
    • Children generally exhibit milder systemic symptoms than do adults.
    • Preparalytic symptoms also may develop into paralytic ones.
  • Paralytic poliomyelitis
    • The incubation period from virus exposure to the neurologic phase can last 4-10 days but may extend to 4-5 weeks.
    • Severe muscle pain and spasms, followed by weakness, develop. Muscle weakness tends to become maximal within 48 hours but may develop for longer than a week. No progression of weakness should be noted after the temperature drops to normal for 48 hours. Weakness is asymmetric, with the lower limbs affected more than upper limbs.
    • Muscle tone is flaccid, and the reflexes initially are brisk but then become absent. The transient or occasionally persistent coarse fasciculations also are observed frequently in patients with paralytic poliomyelitis.
    • Patients also complain of paresthesias in the affected limbs without real sensation loss.
    • Paralysis remains for days or weeks before slow recovery occurs over months or years. Which factors favor development of paralytic disease remains unclear, but some evidence exists that physical activity and intramuscular injections during the prodrome may be important exacerbating factors.[6]
  • Paralytic poliomyelitis with bulbar involvement
    • The purely bulbar form of poliomyelitis without limb weakness may occur in children, particularly in those whose tonsils and adenoids have been removed.
    • Bulbar paralysis with spinal involvement is more common in adults, most frequently involving the medulla and leading to dysphagia, dysphonia, respiratory failure, and vasomotor disturbance.
    • Patients may have symptoms and signs, such as hiccough, shallowness and slowing of respiration, cyanosis, restlessness, and anxiety.
    • When paralysis of diaphragmatic and intercostal musculature also occurs, patients need immediate respiratory assistance and intensive care because of life-threatening respiratory failure. Cranial nerve and bulbar involvement can cause obstruction, due to decreased respiratory drive and associated problems with mucus plugging or actual pharyngeal weakness-induced direct airway obstruction. The loss of vasomotor control with circulatory collapse also contributes to high mortality.
    • The encephalitic form of poliomyelitis
      • This form is very rare and manifests as agitation, confusion, stupor, and coma.
      • Autonomic dysfunction is common, and it has a high mortality.


Vital signs are the key to monitoring patients with poliovirus infection.

  • Muscle weakness can be assessed by muscle strength testing.
    • Usually asymmetric proximal weakness is present with more involvement of lumbar than cervical segments and more spinal cord than brainstem segments.
    • The trunk muscles are affected least.
    • Sensation should be within normal limits objectively.
    • Deep tendon reflexes are diminished or absent.
    • Atrophy of muscle may be detected 3 weeks after onset of paralysis, which becomes maximal at 12-15 weeks and remains permanent.
  • Fifty percent of adult patients with poliomyelitis experience transient acute urinary retention.
  • Stiffness and pain in the neck and back because of meningeal irritation, as well as abnormalities of autonomic function, also can be seen in some patients.
  • Cranial nerve involvement
    • Approximately 10-15% of cases affect the lower brainstem motor nuclei.
    • When the ninth and tenth cranial nerve nuclei are involved, patients develop paralysis of pharyngeal and laryngeal musculature. Unilateral or bilateral facial muscles, as well as the tongue and mastication muscles, may become paralyzed.
    • External oculomotor weakness with pupil sparing may occur in rare cases.
    • Direct infection of the brainstem reticular formation can cause breathing and swallowing disruption, as well as loss of control of the cardiovascular system.


The carrier with poliomyelitis virus infection is one major source of virus spread from person to person. The major route is oral-fecal transmission. The greatest dissemination of virus occurs within families with poor sanitation and hygiene or crowded circumstances.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Christine L Munson, MD Franklin Medical Offices, Kaiser Permanente

Christine L Munson, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Medical Association, Association of Academic Physiatrists, Colorado Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Selina Yingqi Xing, MD, MS Staff Physician, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Temple University

Selina Yingqi Xing, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Harry Schwartz, MD Director of Medical Rehabilitation Program & Spinal Cord Injury Program, Moss Rehabilitation Hospital; Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Temple University School of Medicine

Harry Schwartz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, American Medical Association, Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals, American Spinal Injury Association, Pennsylvania Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Kat Kolaski, MD Assistant Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Pediatrics, Wake Forest University School of Medicine

Kat Kolaski, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA Professor of Clinical Medicine, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Program Director, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans

Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Milton J Klein, DO, MBA Consulting Physiatrist, Heritage Valley Health System-Sewickley Hospital and Ohio Valley General Hospital

Milton J Klein, DO, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Disability Evaluating Physicians, American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, American Academy of Osteopathy, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Medical Association, American Osteopathic Association, American Osteopathic College of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Pain Society, Pennsylvania Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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The typical contractures of postpolio residual paralysis.
Orthotic treatment for deformities around the knee in poliomyelitis.
Surgical correction of a fixed flexion deformity of the knee and hip due to iliotibial band contracture, by Souttar and Yount's release.
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