Common Medical Conditions Associated with Cerebral Palsy in Children

If your baby has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP), you are probably overwhelmed by the amount of information, referrals, and services that are now part of your life. Children with CP face a good deal of health, growth, and development challenges.

While every child diagnosed with CP will face unique challenges, some health conditions are more commonly associated with CP than others, and your child's healthcare team will watch closely for any signs of their development.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a category of movement disorders diagnosed in infancy or early childhood. It is caused by brain damage that occurs at some point during pregnancy, childbirth, or the first few weeks after birth. Occasionally, an infection or head injury in the first year or so of life can also lead to the diagnosis. About 1 in 345 babies born will be diagnosed with CP.

If your baby falls behind on developmental milestones, such as rolling over or inability to hold their head up, your pediatrician may refer you to a neurologist for further testing. Babies diagnosed with CP are often described as having either stiff or floppy tone compared to other infants their age.

Conditions associated with cerebral palsy:

A cerebral palsy diagnosis is life-changing for the entire family. Severity varies widely across the lifespan; some children grow and develop with minimal interruptions to daily life, while others depend entirely on others for care. Understandably, many parents are overwhelmed during the initial diagnosis. Specialist visits, testing, and evaluations can be challenging to coordinate and manage.

While each child with CP will develop at their own pace and with unique challenges, a few medical conditions are more common than others.

Mobility conditions

CP affects how the brain sends signals to the body and can significantly affect a person's overall mobility, coordination, and musculoskeletal development.

Hip displacementAbnormal posture affects hip bone and muscle development.
ScoliosisCP can also cause curved spine alignment.
PainAbnormal muscle coordination and posture cause significant pain for many people with CP.
Abnormal gaitAbout 2/3 of children with CP learn to walk, but many will need an assistive device.

Epilepsy

About half of children diagnosed with CP will also develop a seizure disorder known as epilepsy.

Abnormal brain activity causes seizures. There are several types of seizures, dependent on the part of the brain affected. They typically last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Treatments can include medication, surgical procedures, and frequent monitoring by neurologists.

Nutrition concerns

Poor nutrition is a common problem and affects every aspect of your child's development. Brain development relies on optimal nutrition. Children with CP are at higher risk for poor nutrition for various reasons. The physical requirements for eating, such as hand-mouth coordination and the ability to chew and swallow, can be a challenge. Children with the spastic form of CP expend more energy than normal-developing children and, therefore, actually require higher amounts of calories.

Every child diagnosed with CP should be referred to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). These professionals work with concerns related to speech and communication, but they also evaluate a person’s ability to swallow food safely. SLPs work with the entire healthcare team to determine the best nutrition needs for your child.

Sensory concerns

Sensory concerns greatly affect your child's ability to learn and develop. These can include:

  • Hearing. Your child's hearing ability will be monitored closely during the first three years of life, and they may need hearing aids or other devices.
  • Vision. Approximately 25% of people with CP have vision problems. This can be related to the initial brain injury that caused CP, or due to muscle coordination challenges for the muscles that control eye movement.
  • Speech and communication. Just like swallowing, it takes a great deal of muscle coordination to speak. Children with CP often have difficulty with this coordination. Many children learn to talk, but SLPs work with children to communicate in other ways when that is not possible. Alternative communication methods can include sign language or apps that allow your child to express themself.

Tips for parents on how to make child's life easier:

Even though it is hard to tell you how exactly your child with CP will develop, here are several steps to help you and your child.

  1. Connect. Find a local or online support community. Connecting with other families is invaluable for your mental health and helps you find the best resources for your child.
  2. Advocate for your child. You know your child's strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else. Work with your child's healthcare providers and school district to determine the best plan of care for your child.
  3. Celebrate your child for the unique person they are. While there are certainly common conditions, each child will develop at their own pace and to the best of their ability.
  4. Ask about resources. If your child is diagnosed with CP, your healthcare provider and local school district should be able to help you identify local resources that will make your life easier.

Common health challenges for children diagnosed with cerebral palsy include abnormal musculoskeletal development, seizure disorders, poor nutrition, and sensory problems. No one can tell you exactly how your child with CP will develop, but early referrals and interventions will help your child grow and develop to the best of his ability.

Key takeaways:


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