Periodic Paralysis Syndrome
(Familial Periodic Paralysis; Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis; Anderson-Tawil Syndrome; Paraneoplastic Periodic Paralysis)
Periodic paralysis is a rare condition that is usually inherited. It causes occasional episodes of severe muscle weakness. The 2 most common types of periodic paralysis are hypokalemic and hyperkalemic.
Periodic paralysis is a condition that is present from birth. Periodic paralysis is caused by abnormalities of the electrolyte channels on muscles.
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.
Factors that increase your chance of developing periodic paralysis include:
- Family history of periodic paralysis
- Thyroid disorder—high thyroid hormone levels, particularly in Asian males
Although muscle strength returns to normal between attacks, repeated episodes of weakness may lead to chronic muscle weakness later in life. The person remains alert and aware during attacks. There is no loss of sensation.
Episodes of severe weakness in the arms and legs are the major 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:
- Weakness in the eyelids and face muscles
- Muscle pain
- Irregular heartbeats
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing—This requires emergency care
Some features are specific to the type of periodic paralysis.
- Potassium levels are low during attacks
- Frequency of attacks varies from daily to yearly
- Attacks usually last between 4-24 hours, but can last for several days
- Attacks usually begin in adolescence, but they can occur before age 10
- Potassium levels are high or normal during attacks
- Attacks are usually shorter, more frequent , and less severe than the hypokalemic form; breathing and swallowing difficulties are extremely rare
- Between attacks, patients often experience muscle spasms or difficulty relaxing their muscles, a condition is known as myotonia
- Attacks usually begin in early childhood
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.
Since there is no cure for periodic paralysis, lifelong treatment is usually required. Treatment focuses on preventing attacks and relieving symptoms.
There are a few behaviors you can adopt to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks:
- Eat a low carbohydrate , low sodium diet.
- Avoid strenuous exercise.
- Eat a low potassium diet .
- Stay warm.
- Avoid fasting, alcohol, and heavy exercise.
The type of medications prescribed depend on the type of periodic paralysis.
Medications for both hypokalemic and hyperkalemic include:
- Acetazolamide may prevent an attack by reducing the flow of potassium from the bloodstream into the cells of the body.
- Potassium may stop an attack; intravenous potassium may be prescribed for severe weakness.
- Avoiding certain commonly prescribed medications may help reduce the onset of attacks.
- If you have a thyroid condition, be sure to get treatment for it.
- Thiazide diuretics, or water pills, may be prescribed to prevent an attack.
- Glucose and insulin, or calcium carbonate may be prescribed to slow or stop an attack.
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.
For the hypokalemic type, attacks may be reduced by:
- Avoiding corticosteroids and glucose infusions
- Following a diet low in carbohydrates and sodium and rich in potassium
For the hyperkalemic type, attacks may be reduced by:
- Avoiding high potassium foods, fasting, and drugs known to increase potassium levels
- Engaging in regular, mild exercise
Muscular Dystrophy Association
National Organization for Rare Disorders
Muscular Dystrophy Canada
Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 30, 2013. Accessed June 22, 2015.
Jurkat-Ratt K, Lehmann-Horn F. Paroxysmal muscle weakness-the periodic paralyses. J Neurol. 2006;253:1391-1398.
Jurkatt-Rott K, Lerche H, Weber Y, Lehmann-Horn F. Hereditary channelopathies in neurology. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2010;686:305-334.
Miller TM. Correlating phenotype and genotype in the periodic paralyses. Neurology. 2004;63:1647-1655
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 March 12, 2012. Accessed June 22, 2015.
Patient page: attacks of immobility caused by diet or exercise? The mystery of periodic paralyses. Neurology. 2004;63:E17-E18.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Rimas Lukas, MD; Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.