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Complications of Cerebral Palsy: How to Minimize The Side Effects

doctor explaining to patient's mother the various complications of cerebral palsy

It’s essential to be aware of the potential complications of cerebral palsy so individuals can detect symptoms and start management as early as possible.

By minimizing the progression of complications, individuals can significantly improve their quality of life.

This article will guide you through various complications individuals with CP might experience and effective ways to manage them.

Common Complications of Cerebral Palsy

Individuals with cerebral palsy are susceptible to a wide range of complications.

Some are directly related to cerebral palsy, while others are unrelated but commonly co-occur as a result of extensive damage to the brain.

You’re about to learn 9 frequently occurring complications among individuals with cerebral palsy.

1. Difficulty Controlling Movements

The most common complication of cerebral palsy is difficulty controlling one’s movements due to abnormal muscle tone.

Generally, abnormal muscle tone presents itself in the form of an irregular gait or stiff movements.

Depending on what type of cerebral palsy someone has, they can experience high muscle tone, low muscle tone, or a combination of both.

If not properly managed, involuntary muscle contractions or relaxations can worsen and severely impair movement.

2. Limited or Uneven Growth

Another major complication of cerebral palsy is limited or uneven growth.

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain, meaning that people are either born with it or develop it at a very young age.

As a result, cerebral palsy can significantly affect a child’s growth and development.

Children grow rapidly; however, high muscle tone can pull the limbs or trunk into uncomfortable positions, which can cause uneven growth.

For example, high muscle tone in the trunk can cause children to consistently lean to the side. Because of the way the body is contorted during growth, children can develop scoliosis (a sideways curvature of the spine) or poor posture.

3. Difficulties Performing Tasks that Require Dexterity

identifying the various complications of cerebral palsy

Ataxic cerebral palsy is a rare type of CP that is caused by damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum.

Some of the major functions of the cerebellum are to fine-tune movements and establish coordination.

As a result, those with ataxic cerebral palsy often struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills such as writing, using silverware, and picking items up.

Those with other types of cerebral palsy can also struggle with hand functions due to high muscle tone. Generally, this is experienced in the form of clenched fingers.  

4. Poor Nutrition

Cerebral palsy can also affect the muscles around the mouth.

Oral motor impairments can make it challenging for individuals to chew and swallow their food.

Similarly, gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) is relatively common amongst people with cerebral palsy. GERD is a condition that occurs when stomach acid travels up the esophagus. It can cause the esophagus to narrow and makes it difficult for food to pass into the stomach.

As a result, individuals with oral motor impairments or GERD may not eat enough and are susceptible to malnourishment.

5. Impaired Communication

Another complication of oral motor impairment is poor communication.

Although someone with cerebral palsy might know exactly what they want to say, they may struggle to coordinate the muscles necessary to speak.

Severe oral motor impairments can result in non-verbal cerebral palsy.

Often, individuals who are non-verbal learn how to communicate with sign language. However, individuals with cerebral palsy may also struggle with sign language because of poor fine motor skills.

6. Bowel and Bladder-Related Accidents

Due to poor bowel and bladder muscle control (incontinence), individuals with cerebral palsy can be prone to waste-related accidents.

When the bowel or bladder muscles don’t contract, they retain waste, which can cause urinary tract infections or constipation.

Similarly, when there is high muscle tone in the detrusor (the muscle that makes up the wall of the bladder), the bladder can only hold a small amount of urine and leaking occurs.

7. Disrupted Sleep

sleep complications due to high muscle tone

Up to 46% of children with cerebral palsy experience sleep complications like teeth grinding, breathing difficulties, and waking up throughout the night.

Sleeping complications are often the result of discomfort or pain caused by high muscle tone, lack of consciousness, or gastrointestinal difficulties.

8. Delayed Responsiveness

Although cerebral palsy is a movement disability, many individuals with CP also have co-occurring cognitive impairments.

Generally, hearing or vision impairments don’t have to do with damage to the ears or eyes, but rather the brain’s ability to process auditory and visual stimuli.

As a result, individuals may have delayed reactions or will require more time to complete tasks.

9. Higher Levels of Fatigue

Fatigue is more common amongst individuals with cerebral palsy because high muscle tone strains the muscles, bones, and joints.

As a result, the body has to exert more energy to move, which can cause individuals with cerebral palsy to tire out quickly.

Now that you understand what kinds of complications a person with cerebral palsy might experience, let’s review management interventions.

Effective Ways to Manage Complications of Cerebral Palsy

young girl managing complications of cerebral palsy at physical therapy

While the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy will not progress over time, unmanaged complications can.

Therefore, it is ideal to keep an eye out for early signs of CP and seek management as soon as possible.

Some of the best ways to manage complications of cerebral palsy include:

  • Physical therapy focuses on improving mobility through exercises designed to stretch tight muscles, strengthen underused muscles, maintain full range of motion, and reduce the excitability of spastic muscles.
  • Occupational therapy also focuses on improving mobility by practicing activities of daily living and learning how to use adaptive tools. This helps develop fine motor skills and promote a more independent lifestyle.
  • Speech therapy helps develop the oral muscles necessary for speaking, chewing, and swallowing. Individuals with more severe oral motor impairments will learn how to use alternative forms of communication such as voice generators, communication boards, or sign language.
  • Orthotic devices like braces, splints, and casts help promote musculoskeletal alignment. Moreover, they resist the tightening of spastic muscles, which can help lengthen muscles even when individuals are not actively stretching. 
  • Medications can help temporarily relieve many complications of cerebral palsy including pain, high muscle tone, and sleep problems.
  • Consistent stretching can help lengthen tight muscles, improve range of motion, and help reduce pain associated with high muscle tone.
  • Cognitive exercises can help improve the brain’s ability to process sensory information through consistent stimulation.
  • Surgery is generally recommended for severe complications that do not respond to other forms of management. They can involve selectively cutting nerves or manually lengthening tendons to reduce muscle tone.

Understanding Complications of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a motor disorder, meaning that it primarily affects one’s movements.

However, difficulties controlling one’s movements can also affect major body functions such as circulation, digestion, and respiration.

Because everyone experiences cerebral palsy differently, management should be tailored to each individual’s unique complications.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand the various complications of cerebral palsy and how to manage them. Good luck!

Photos from top to bottom: ©iStock.com/shironosov/Natalia Bodrova/LeManna/wavebreakmedia

Keep It Going: See Fun Ways to Recover from Cerebral Palsy

Finally! There’s a recovery device for CP that’s actually fun to use. See how Flint Rehab’s tools are helping with CP recovery:

“The FitMi and MusicGlove have done wonders for my son with hemiparesis from cerebral palsy and stroke. It motivates him to do his exercises. It does not seem like therapy for him since it is fun. It monitors his progress so it is a great reinforcement for him. Music is a motivator for him. He has been using it on his arm and we will try the leg exercises soon.”

FitMi works by motivating high repetition of therapeutic exercises while playing an engaging game. This gamification has been particularly great for motivating individuals with cerebral palsy to recover.

To see how FitMi works, click here »