Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of nervous system disorders that cause muscle coordination problems and other movement issues. It may be caused by injury or infection during pregnancy or during or after birth. It may also be the result of genetic mutations.
No matter the cause, CP occurs early in life. Symptoms often show up in the first years of a child’s life.
There is no condition known as late-onset CP. You can’t develop this condition as an adult. Plus, CP is non-progressive. That means it doesn’t worsen over a person’s lifetime. However, as a person living with CP ages, the condition can cause new challenges and issues.
Read on to learn more about life as an adult with CP and how you can prepare for new challenges.
The symptoms adults with CP experience often depend on the type of CP they have, as well as the level.
Some forms of CP, such as spastic cerebral palsy, cause stiff muscles, exaggerated reflexes, and abnormal movements when walking or trying to move. CP can affect the entire body, but it may also only impact one side of it.
Common symptoms of CP include:
- muscle weakness
- stiff muscles
- scissor-like movements with legs when walking
- involuntary movements in hands, arms, and legs
- twitching of the face and tongue
- difficulty swallowing
- loss of muscle tone
- floppy limbs that move easily
Premature aging, as well as more pronounced mental and physical impairments, may make it seem as if CP is worsening with age. It’s not. It’s a non-progressive condition.
Instead, the condition can slowly compromise the body’s ability to move and work effectively, which may feel as if the condition is worsening.
It’s important to keep in mind that symptoms of CP will not show up for the first time in adults. If you or a loved one are experiencing new issues with movement, it’s likely a result of another condition, not CP.
Thanks to advances in treatment and management, life expectancy for individuals with CP is nearly the same as the general population. However, people with CP often face issues and challenges that people without the disorder don’t face.
For example, people with CP are likely to experience premature aging. These early signs of advanced age may begin to show by the time they turn 40.
People with CP use three to five times the energy of people without the disorder to complete everyday tasks.
Over time, that strain and demand on muscles and bones can begin to wear down the body. Eventually, the overuse of joints like those in the knees, ankles, hips, and arms can lead to osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis.
For some individuals, premature aging may require the use of mobility aids, such as wheelchairs or crutches. For others, the ability to walk may be lost entirely. Other signs of premature aging include increased pain, stiff muscles, and problems with the heart or lungs.
Post-impairment syndrome is a common condition that occurs when you max out your body’s energy repeatedly. If you have CP, you may use all of your energy doing certain everyday tasks, such as climbing a small flight of stairs or sweeping the floor.
The combination of this increased energy use, plus pain, fatigue, and weakness, places a great burden on the body.
Post-impairment syndrome may be difficult to distinguish from symptoms and impacts of CP.
People living with CP do need greater energy for every type of task, so fatigue and pain are common. However, the chronic presence of pain, fatigue, and weakness may be the clues that you have post-impairment syndrome.
You can avoid the prolonged damage from high energy demands and increased fatigue by working with an occupational therapist. These medical professionals can help you learn ways to perform daily tasks and expend less energy at the same time.
Abnormalities with muscles, joints, and bones can produce discomfort during childhood, but as a person with CP ages, this discomfort can turn into pain.
CP can impact the development and function of joints. It can lead to early onset osteoarthritis. It can also put excessive compression on your joints each time you use them. These issues can lead to pain.
This pain is most common in the body’s major joints, including the hips, knees, ankles, and upper and lower back. CP wears on the body physically in many ways. The effects from this pain can worsen other symptoms.
For some people, pain can be managed with preventative measures. This includes physical and occupational therapy. Medication may also help.
People living with CP may feel isolated because of the condition. You may avoid events or outings. You may be afraid to feel ashamed or embarrassed because of physical limitations. This can lead to social isolation, anxiety, and even depression.
This same study found that depression was more common in those who also had gastrointestinal conditions or used oral painkillers. Read how one woman deals with the depression that comes with her chronic illness.
Mental health issues may be overlooked because CP is primarily a physical condition. The focus for treatment may be on improving mobility, decreasing pain, and prolonging energy. However, the effects of depression and mental health issues can increase the severity of CP.
It’s important that you and your doctor address your emotional and mental needs, as well as your physical ones. Support groups, therapists, and other mental health experts can be a good resource for individuals with CP.
People with CP have higher rates of:
- heart conditions
- urinary incontinence
- joint pain
- swallowing difficulties
- hearing impairments
- speech difficulties
The combination of CP symptoms and these other medical conditions can impact a person’s general well-being and health. It may make symptoms of either condition worse, too. Fortunately, there are treatments for many of these conditions.
As children with CP grow into adults, they may decide to take on new experiences, with college and jobs. CP can make certain tasks more difficult, but many are able to attend school or work full-time with great success and achievement.
There are also accommodations that can make your day-to-day activities easier and less physically taxing.
Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. These accommodations may include:
- frequent rest periods
- devices to reduce physical toll (a stool, for example)
- a parking space closer to the door
- a desk closer to the restroom or office machines
- the use of other assistive devices
Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against you in their hiring choices because of any disability or special needs.
If you’re unsure of your rights or need help, you can contact the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Organizations like The Arc and the American Association of People with Disabilities are also helpful.
People living with CP might have some hesitations about social events. You may fear unusual looks or questions. You may also tire easily or feel it’s too inconvenient making accommodations for your wheelchair or crutches.
However, remember that you are not an inconvenience. Many people with this condition have a healthy, robust social life.
The key is finding friends who will encourage you to remain active and will help you in that endeavor. You may feel the tendency to isolate yourself out of convenience.
Friends who check in with you and understand the accommodations you may need will help you feel well-connected socially and realize there is little holding you back.
People living with CP can have healthy, active lives. Many have a life expectancy equal to that of a person without that condition.
However, CP can present challenging circumstances that require accommodations and management. Thanks to advancements in treating CP, many people can find the assistance they need and live fulfilling lives.
If you’re looking for treatment resources or have questions about living with CP as an adult, reach out to these organizations: