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Periodic paralysis is a rare groups of conditions. It causes occasional episodes of severe muscle weakness. The most common types of periodic paralysis are hypokalemic, hyperkalemic and Andersen-Tawil syndrome. Less common forms include paramyotonia congenita von Eulenburg, thyrotoxic, distal renal tubular acidosis, X-linked episodic muscle weakness syndrome, and congenital myasthenic syndromes.
Periodic paralysis is a condition that is present from birth. Elements in the body are needed to make the muscles contract. With periodic paralysis, the gateway for these elements are disturbed and disrupt the ability to contract.
Familial periodic paralysis is inherited, but may occur without a known family history. With the inherited form of the disorder, only 1 affected parent is needed to transmit the gene to the baby. Rarely, the condition occurs as a result of a noninherited genetic defect.
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Factors that increase your chance of developing periodic paralysis include:
Episodes of severe weakness in the arms and legs are the main symptom. Typically, these episodes occur during sleep, early morning, or after strenuous activity. Cold, stress, and alcohol may also produce attacks. Other, less common, symptoms may include:
Although muscle strength returns to normal between attacks, repeated episodes of weakness may lead to chronic muscle weakness later in life.
Some features are specific to the type of periodic paralysis.
Persons with some types of periodic paralysis are at risk for a condition known as malignant hyperthermia. This can occur during the use of general anesthesia. Anyone with a family history of periodic paralysis needs to notify the anesthesiologist of this history prior to any surgery.
Because this primarily is an inherited condition, the most important part of diagnosis is obtaining a family history. You will be asked about your symptoms and your medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor may want to bring on an attack during an office visit. This should only be done under careful monitoring by an experienced neurologist. If an attack is triggered, several tests may be done, including:
Your muscle tissue may need to be tested. This can be done with a biopsy.
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Since there is no cure for periodic paralysis, lifelong treatment is usually required. Treatment focuses on preventing attacks and relieving symptoms.
Dietary changes can help influence the level of potassium in the body. Depending on your situation, you may be referred to a dietitian for help with meal planning.
You may also be advised to avoid strenuous exercise and drinking alcohol. They could make symptoms worse.
The type of medications prescribed depend on the type of periodic paralysis.
Familial periodic paralysis cannot be prevented. Because it can be inherited, genetic counseling may be advised for couples at risk of passing on the disorder.
Muscular Dystrophy Association
National Organization for Rare Disorders
Andersen-Tawill syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 3, 2012. Accessed May 11, 2016.
Finsterer J. Primary periodic paralyses. Acta Neurol Scand. 2008 Mar;117(3):145-58.
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T281844/Hypokalemic-periodic-paralysis. Updated September 11, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Jurkat-Ratt K, Lehmann-Horn F. Paroxysmal muscle weakness-the periodic paralyses. J Neurol. 2006;253:1391-1398.
NINDS familial periodic paralyses information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/periodic_paralysis/periodic_paralysis.htm. Updated August 10, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2016.
Patient page: attacks of immobility caused by diet or exercise? The mystery of periodic paralyses. Neurology. 2004;63:E17-E18.
Last reviewed May 2018 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/11/2013