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Understanding Hemiplegia: Paralysis of One Side of the Body

Hemiplegia is a neurological condition that involves paralysis of one side of the body. Hemiplegia is a secondary effect of certain medical conditions that damage the nervous system such as stroke, brain injury, or cerebral palsy. Sometimes, this affects the way people move, walk, or care for themselves.

Because of this, individuals with hemiplegia often rely on assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, and the help of caregivers to carry out daily tasks. Fortunately, regaining movement is often possible thanks to the nervous system’s ability to rewire itself.

To help you understand the symptoms and treatment methods for hemiplegia, this guide will discuss:

  • Definition

  • Types

  • Symptoms

  • Treatment

  • Rehabilitation

  • Exercises

Hemiplegia Definition

Hemiplegia is a condition caused by damage to the nervous system that results in paralysis of one side of the body. It can cause difficulty moving the lower part of one’s face, arm, and leg on the right or left side of the body.

Types of Hemiplegia

One of the most common causes of hemiplegia is stroke. When a stroke occurs, the supply of blood in the brain is compromised and causes brain damage.

Other neurological conditions that can cause hemiplegia are brain injury, spinal cord injury, and cerebral palsy. Hemiplegia in individuals with cerebral palsy is congenital, meaning that it is caused by damage to the brain before, during, or shortly after birth.

Here are the possible types of hemiplegia:

Contralateral hemiplegia

The brain is divided in two hemispheres, each controlling movement on the opposite side of the body. This is the phenomenon behind contralateral hemiplegia, which refers to paralysis on the side of the body that’s opposite to the side where the brain damage occurred.

A person with right hemiplegia experiences paralyzed muscles on the right side of the body after injury to the left hemisphere of the brain. A person with left hemiplegia experiences paralyzed muscles on the left side of the body after right hemisphere injury.

Spinal hemiplegia (ipsilateral)

Unlike the brain, each side of the spinal cord controls movement on the same side (ipsilateral) of the body. After spinal cord injury, right hemiplegia describes paralysis on the right side of the body after injury to the right side of the spinal cord whereas left hemiplegia reflects paralysis on the left side of the body after injury to the left side of the spinal cord. This is also referred to as Brown-Sequard syndrome.

Spastic hemiplegia

Spastic hemiplegia refers to a type of hemiplegia that is common with cerebral palsy. Spastic hemiplegia affects movement one side of the body opposite to the side of the brain that was injured before, during, or shortly after birth. It is the most common type of cerebral palsy, and the arm is usually more affected than the leg.

The term ‘spastic’ refers to a condition called spasticity, which involves stiff, involuntarily-contracted muscles. Individuals with spastic hemiplegia demonstrate stiff movements while individuals with flaccid hemiplegia experience loose, floppy muscles on the affected side.

Facial hemiplegia

Facial hemiplegia refers to paralyzed muscles on one side of the face. It can occur on its own or in conjunction with hemiplegia elsewhere in the body, like the arm and/or leg.

One of the hallmark signs of a stroke is facial drooping on half of the face. Facial hemiplegia is often temporary and goes away once the stroke has been treated and normal blood flow in the brain has been restored. However, in some cases, it may persist for individuals with facial hemiplegia.

Hemiplegia Symptoms and Signs

Because hemiplegia is a neurological condition, the symptoms vary based on the characteristics of the injury. Some factors that impact the symptoms involve the size and location of the injury.

For example, a spinal cord injury only impairs movement below the level of injury while a brain injury can impair movement anywhere on the affected side, ranging from the face to the arm to the leg.

Every neurological injury is unique and therefore every individual with hemiplegia experiences different characteristics. Some of these signs and symptoms can include:

  • Paralysis of the arm, leg, and/or lower face on the affected side

  • Difficulty with walking and balance

  • Loose, floppy muscles (flaccidity) on the affected side

  • Stiff, rigid muscles (spasticity) on the affected side

  • Delay in developmental milestones for children with spastic hemiplegia

Hemiplegia is a secondary effect of a primary neurological injury. Individuals with a primary injury involving stroke or brain injury may also experience other secondary symptoms such as:

  • Sensory loss (numbness, “pins and needle” sensations)

  • Visual disturbances

  • Difficulty with speech

  • Seizures

  • Neglect and learned nonuse of the affected side

Hemiplegia does not cause these signs or symptoms directly. Rather, they are complications of the primary neurological injury.

Hemiplegia Treatment

Treatment for hemiplegia occurs in two phases. First, the primary neurological injury is treated, if possible. For example, when a stroke occurs, initial treatment involves stopping the stroke and restoring normal blood flow in the brain.

The second phase of hemiplegia treatment involves healing the nervous system and encouraging it to rewire itself. This is possible through neuroplasticity, which is the nervous system’s ability to create, strengthen, and reorganize neural pathways.

After an areas of the brain becomes damaged, neuroplasticity allows unaffected areas of the brain to take on the function of movement. For spinal cord injuries, neuroplasticity allows neural pathways in the spine to be reorganized and rewired — although this is only possible if the spinal cord was not completely severed (complete spinal cord injury).

Neuroplasticity is strengthened through experience and repetition. When movement is practiced, for example, that experience encourages the nervous system to create and strengthen neural pathways responsible for that movement. Through experience and repetition, individuals with hemiplegia may be able to regain movement in the paralyzed side. This is why exercise is a staple of hemiplegia treatment (more on this later).

Not all individuals can regain movement, but it’s possible for many. Regardless of the individual’s prognosis, every neurological injury is unique, which means that even when the odds are not favorable, recovery might still be possible. No one knows the true outcome of any single neurological injury. Therefore, the only way to know how much movement a person can recover is to pursue rehabilitation and see what happens.

Rehabilitation Methods for Hemiplegia

Up next, you’ll discover various rehabilitation methods that may help improve hemiplegia. Each rehabilitation method involves exercise because experience and repetition is how neuroplasticity is activated.

Rehabilitation exercise

Rehabilitation exercises are designed to help rewire the brain through repetition. When therapeutic movements are practiced with good form, it helps stimulate neuroplasticity and encourage better movement patterns.

Passive exercise

Individuals with hemiplegia may struggle to perform rehabilitation exercises due to limited strength or range of motion. This is where passive exercises can help. During passive exercise, the targeted muscle group is assisted through the exercise with help from a therapist or trained caregiver.

Even though the individual is not actively creating this movement, the passive movement helps stimulate the brain and spark neuroplasticity, particularly when attention is paid to the movement. If an individual performs passive exercise while watching television, for example, it won’t have the desired effect.

Physical therapy

Physical therapists specialize in restoring movement in the body. Individuals with hemiplegia can greatly benefit from working with a physical therapist to practice specific rehabilitation exercises that target their unique needs.

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