Post-Polio Syndrome: A Physical Therapist’s Perspective.

By Karen W. Kovacs, PT


I have treated several people diagnosed with Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS). Their symptoms included pain, fatigue and weakness. But these same symptoms are hallmarks of other diseases, too. The Post-Polio Health Education Network reminds us, “It’s important to not get hung up on a definition.” Polio survivors, like anyone, need to work with their medical team to find appropriate treatment for their unique symptoms.

People who have had polio, like many of my patients, typically come to physical therapy because of pain and weakness. The patients I have worked with have been as young as 40 years old. We still aren’t exactly sure what causes the symptoms so many years after the virus affects a person, typically more than 30 years later. And no one really knows why some people experience PPS and others do not.

We think the symptoms are the result of damage at the point where the nerve innervates a muscle to “tell it what to do.” Then the muscles don’t provide adequate support at the joints. Aging bodies start to hurt and people notice more difficulty with normal activities like getting up out of a chair. Sound familiar? A carefully prescribed program is really important. Just adding more exercise is definitely not advised with the type of weakness that is associated with PPS.

Physical Therapists sometimes work with an orthotist to make low profile braces that integrate the latest technology (like carbon) to give more stability at a polio survivor’s ankle or knee. This helps protect the patient’s joints and makes it easier to get around. These are not like the braces President Roosevelt wore.

Ironically, the profession of physical therapy went through a huge growth spurt after World War II because of the increased number of citizens needing rehabilitation, including wounded soldiers and people with polio. We still use techniques that were developed in the 1950s to facilitate muscle recruitment for polio survivors with our patients who have impaired neuromuscular function. This even includes athletes who have been injured or people who have developed compensation habits because of pain.

It’s ironic to me that despite advances in medicine and technology, PTs may still be treating patients with PPS (if those people are fortunate enough to have access to health care) beyond 2050. We really are “this close” to eradicating the virus; we can’t stop now.


Karen Kovacs is a Physical Therapist and Clinical Director at Tidewater Physical Therapy, Gloucester Point. She is Board Certified in Orthopedics. Kovacs is a Past-President of Gloucester Point Rotary Club.


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