Hesperian Health Guides

What Other Disabilities Can Be Confused with Polio?

  • Sometimes cerebral palsy can be mistaken for polio—especially cerebral palsy of the ‘floppy’ type.

However, cerebral palsy usually affects the body in typical patterns


a person with all 4 limbs affected
all 4 limbs
a person with an arm and leg on the same side affected
arm and leg on same side
a person with both legs affected
both legs

Polio has a more irregular pattern of paralysis:


person with 2 arms and a leg affected, person with a leg and a foot affected, person with 2 legs, a shoulder, and hand affected

In cerebral palsy, usually you can find other signs of brain damage: over-active knee jerks and abnormal reflexes, developmental delay, awkward or uncontrolled movement, or at least some muscle tenseness (spasticity).

a partially paralyzed child
  • In muscular dystrophy, paralysis begins little by little and steadily gets worse.
a child with uneven hips

  • Hip problems can cause limping, and muscles may become thin and weak. Check hips for pain or dislocations.

    Note: Dislocated hip may also occur secondary to polio.

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  • Clubbed foot is present from birth.

DVC Ch7 Page 62-8.png
  • ‘Erb’s palsy’, or partial paralysis in one arm and hand, comes from birth injury to the shoulder.

DVC Ch7 Page 62-9.png
  • Leprosy. Foot and hand paralysis begins gradually in older child. Often there are skin patches and loss of feeling.

DVC Ch7 Page 62-10.png
  • Spina bifida is present from birth. There is reduced feeling in the feet, and often a lump (or scar from surgery) on the back.

Note: Polio can occur before or after a child has any of these other problems. Check carefully.

Always examine the back in a child with paralysis of the legs, and check for feeling.

a boy with paralyzed legs sitting propped on a rock
  • Injuries to the spinal cord or to particular nerves going to the arms
    or legs. There is usually a history of a severe back or neck injury, and loss of feeling in the paralyzed part.
a child with a bump on his spine
  • Tuberculosis of the spine can cause gradual or suddenly increasing paralysis of the lower body. Look for typical bump on spine.

  • Other causes of paralysis or muscle weakness. There are many causes of floppy paralysis similar to polio. One of the most common is ‘Guillain-Barre’ paralysis. This can result from a virus infection, from poisoning, or from unknown causes. It usually begins without warning in the legs, and may spread within a few days to paralyze the whole body. Sometimes feeling is also reduced. Usually strength slowly returns, partly or completely, in several weeks or months. Rehabilitation and prevention of secondary problems are basically the same as for polio.

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019