Most of us are accustomed to having control of our physical selves. We take for granted that we can make our bodies move about the world as we command them to. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if you remained conscious but were unable to move, communicate, or even breathe on your own?
We’ve talked about sleep paralysis before, a condition that subjects victims to horrifying hallucinations. And today, we’re looking at 10 more terrifying ways that you can become trapped in your own body.
10 Periodic Paralysis
Periodic paralyses are genetic disorders characterized by episodes of sudden muscular paralysis. These frightening attacks are caused by abnormal ion channels in muscle tissue. Due to these malfunctioning channels, potassium is unable to flow into or out of cells, leading to low (hypokalemic) or high (hyperkalemic) blood levels.
Muscles then become flaccid and useless, leaving sufferers immobilized for minutes to hours. Attacks are caused by common triggers—heat, cold, exercise, and high carb or high sodium meals—that affect potassium movement into cells. Although these frightening episodes can start within minutes, sufferers who adjust their lifestyles can limit the frequency of attacks. Fortunately, episodes are reversible with treatment of abnormal potassium levels, and most cases aren’t fatal.
9 Tick Paralysis
Lyme disease has taken center stage when it comes to awareness of tick-borne illnesses. However, there’s another terrifying disorder than can result from a tick’s bite: tick paralysis. Unlike other tick-related diseases, this one isn’t caused by infectious organisms. Instead, it’s caused by a neurotoxin released by the parasite’s saliva.
Weakness begins to set in within several days after the initial bite. Soon, the victim starts to suffer from profound paralysis, respiratory failure, and possible death. Tick paralysis is ascending, beginning in the lower limbs and moving upward toward the trunk. Removal of the tick causes complete and rapid reversal of all symptoms . . . if it’s discovered in time.
Tick paralysis is most common in children, but it can strike at any age. This disorder is actually found in many places around in the world. As for North America, tick paralysis is most common in the northwestern, southeastern, and Rocky Mountain states.
Skip to 2:20 to hear Hawking discuss his condition.
One of the most feared and gruesome of all progressive illnesses is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player who died of the condition. ALS causes irreversible loss of control of the body over the course of months or years. The degeneration is due to the death of motor neurons, the cells that signal movement to muscles.
Early symptoms may only involve mild weakness, slurred speech, or twitching. However, patients are slowly locked inside their bodies, losing their ability to control any movement. In the inevitable conclusion, unlucky victims are unable to even speak or swallow. They’re completely dependent upon others for total care.
Devastatingly, both sensation and the mind are left intact, leaving the patient helplessly aware of their imprisonment. Most victims eventually succumb to the inability to breathe. Aside from supportive care, there is no effective way to treat, cure, or reverse ALS. However, not everyone succumbs to ALS so quickly. Despite the common name of the disease, the most famous sufferer is renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who has surpassed typical survival expectations by decades.
7 Transverse Myelitis
Transverse myelitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord. Horrifyingly, it can cause devastating paralysis within mere hours. Early symptoms include weakness, tingling, and loss of both bowel and bladder control. These continue to worsen in the following hours, days, and weeks until the patient may be totally paralyzed. Causes of the inflammation vary from infections to immune disorders that trigger the body to attack the spinal cord. On some rare occasions, the condition is caused by the body’s reaction to certain vaccines.
Treatment involves supporting the patient’s breathing and functioning while waiting for the inflammation to subside. Steroids and anti-inflammatory medications may assist in recovery. Most patients go on to recover some functioning, but others are left seriously disabled for life.
6 Curare Poisoning
Curare is a paralyzing poison long used by natives of Central and South America. The substance is applied to arrows and used to fell game. Humans also succumb when exposed to the poison. Chillingly, victims experience total relaxation of the skeletal muscles while remaining completely aware of their situation. In other words, they’re unable to gesture or call out for help.
A fatal dose causes death by respiratory failure in less than half an hour. Curare is extracted from the bark of certain South American plants. Fortunately for enterprising hunters, it has no effect when eaten, so animals killed with poisoned arrows remain edible.
The paralyzing effects of curare were exploited by anesthetists in the 20th century. They used the toxin to relax muscles and immobilize patients during surgery. In fact, the poison induces such dramatic effects that it has made frequent appearance in mystery novels, such as the work of best-selling mystery writer Agatha Christie.
5 High-Level Quadriplegia
The spinal cord is responsible for relaying messages from the brain to nerves throughout the body so that movements and functions are made possible. If the spinal cord is damaged by injury or illness, sensation and bodily control are limited or destroyed. Lesions can be found anywhere on the spine from the lumbar (lower back) to the torso (thoracic) to the cervical (upper back and neck) vertebra. The higher up the lesion is on the spine, the more body area is affected.
In the worst cases of quadriplegia (when cervical vertebrae are seriously damaged), patients can be left unable to move, unable to control bodily functions, or unable feel any sensation except in limited regions of the head or face. The condition is often permanent, and victims must rely on caretakers and medical devices. Ventilators breathe for those who can’t, and aides assist with daily living tasks such as eating and toileting. In most instances, the mind is unaffected.
4 Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning
A succulent meal can turn dangerous when biotoxin-producing algae accumulate in the bivalves on our plate. Paralytic shellfish poison is created by some species of microscopic algae, which are then eaten by hinged shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels. When consumed by humans, the toxin’s effects on the nervous system can cause symptoms from minor tingling to complete paralysis. In deadly cases, the unlucky patron is rendered totally unable to move or breathe in 30 minutes to 12 hours.
Unfortunately, there is no antidote to shellfish poisoning, so sufferers can only receive supportive care such as CPR and artificial ventilation until the toxin is naturally cleared by their body.
Succinylcholine is safely used each day during surgical procedures to paralyze patients. This drug causes total muscle relaxation. Unfortunately, when insufficient doses of sedatives are used, paralyzing agents like succinylcholine are also the drugs responsible for anesthesia awareness.
But exposure to succinylcholine and its terrifying effects has a sinister history. In the 1960s and 1970s, this drug was used as an experimental form of aversion therapy. In the ’60s, patients in Atascadero State Hospital—a maximum security clinic for mentally ill and criminally insane males that is still open—were chosen for therapy if they exhibited “acting out” behaviors. Succinylcholine was administered with the goal of initiating paralysis . . . and a brief (one-minute) period of apnea (breathing cessation). Patients remained completely conscious but totally helpless as doctors lectured them about their behavioral issues.
2 Akinetic Mutism
A rare result of brain diseases such as strokes and brain tumors, akinetic mustim causes patients to remain conscious but unable to will movement or speech. Patients appear to be apathetic, mute, and expressionless. However, they are actually alert and may visually follow the movement and instructions of their caregivers. A patient interviewed by the famous Dr. Oliver Sacks explained that for each attempt to will movement, a “counter will” rose to meet and foil them.
The condition results from damage or disease in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain necessary for decision making and fluent speech. It is also a symptom of the infamous Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, otherwise known as human mad cow disease.
1 Locked-In Syndrome
Like a dreadful nightmare, people with locked-in syndrome can appear to be completely comatose despite retaining their cognitive abilities. Due to brainstem lesions, locked-in patients can be permanently rendered unable to even open their eyes, trapped in their own mind by a useless and stubbornly unresponsive body.
Sometimes, victims remain able to communicate by blinking or moving their eyes. In one famous instance, journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke and awoke from a coma 20 days later to find himself unable to move save for his left eyelid. By blinking when the correct letter was reached by an aide reading the alphabet, Bauby was able to methodically write his acclaimed autobiography about his experiences: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Modern technology—such as CT scans, MRI, and EEG—has allowed the discovery of consciousness in some patients who were previously assumed to be comatose. Researchers are hopeful that future advances will allow patients to communicate more effectively via brain computer interfacing, a process that would allow a person’s mere thoughts to manipulate a computer.
Ellen B Weiss is a lifelong Pennsylvanian who recently transplanted to North Carolina. She is a metalsmith and has been making jewelry for many years. She also suffers from hypokalemic periodic paralysis. Her work can be found at ellenbuchanan.etsy.com.