Adult life with CP

Walking and Swallowing Disorders in Adults

01 Nov 2017

Cerebral palsy is already a condition that directly impacts one’s movement and flexibility. Aging tends to compound these symptoms and effects.

25% of people with cerebral palsy who are able to walk as children can begin to lose this ability as they get older.

Adulthood can onset musculoskeletal abnormalities that weren’t present during childhood or adolescence. This can impact an individual’s ability to walk independently. As a result, they may opt to use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs or crutches, to make life easier for them.

The most common conditions found in adults that would impact their ability to walk are osteoarthritis and degenerative arthritis. These conditions are the result of abnormal joint surfaces and joint compressions interacting over the course of a lifetime. Additionally, adults with CP have a heightened risk for developing overuse syndromes and nerve entrapments.

Swallowing disorders, or dysphagia, are also common in adults with CP. These disorders can occur at various stages of development, but they are typically caused by damage to the nervous system, head or neck.

Symptoms of dysphagia in adults are:

  • Coughing during or right after eating/drinking
  • Food or liquid leaking from or getting stuck in the mouth
  • Recurring pneumonia or chest congestion
  • Weight loss, poor nutrition or dehydration
  • Embarrassment or lack of enjoyment surrounding eating or drinking in social situations

Fortunately, working with a speech therapist or physical therapist can significantly improve speech and mobility. Walking and swallowing disorders are likely to present a few added challenges, but their effects can be managed with proper treatment.

CP and Post-impairment Syndrome

Post-impairment syndrome is a fairly common condition among adults with cerebral palsy. Identifying this condition can be difficult, as many of the symptoms mimic those of CP and other related conditions.

Symptoms of post-impairment syndrome are:

  • Weakness due to muscle abnormalities, bone deformities, overuse syndromes and arthritis
  • Increased pain
  • Fatigue
  • Repetitive strain injuries

Individuals with cerebral palsy use more energy than able-bodied people when walking or moving around. This can cause post-impairment syndrome. The best way to avoid developing this condition is by working with various therapists throughout early adulthood, such as an occupational therapist, who will work to strengthen these muscles over time.


CP and Mental Health

A condition like cerebral palsy can make the stresses of life a bit more overwhelming. This can also lead to being uncomfortable in social situations which in turn may increase feelings of isolation or loneliness. The most common disorders found in adults with CP are depression and anxiety disorders.

Mental health issues can also be of concern as someone with cerebral palsy grows older. The rate of depression is three to four times higher in people with disabilities such as CP. It appears to be related not so much to the severity of their disabilities, but to how well they cope with them. The amount of emotional support someone has, how successful they are at coping with disappointment/stress, and whether or not they have an optimistic outlook about the future all have a significant impact on mental health.

If you suspect that you, a friend or family member has developed a mental health condition as they enter adulthood, there are many important warning signs to look out for.

Early signs of depression are:

  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Not eating or eating too much (binge-eating disorder)
  • Talking about death or self-harming
  • A lack of desire to complete activities that once brought enjoyment

Early signs of anxiety are:

  • Rapid heart beat
  • Being “jumpy” or unable to sit still
  • Dizziness, shakiness, excessive sweating or nausea
  • Avoiding doing things involving other people or unfamiliar places
  • Being overly worried about small things

While depression and anxiety are the most common disorders found in adults with CP, they are still at risk of developing any other mental health condition. An unfortunate result of having such a physically pronounced condition like CP is that sometimes mental and emotional health can be overlooked by doctors and specialists during exams.

The best way to address an adult with CP who may also have a co-occurring mental health condition is by being proactive in tracking any observable signs. The next step is to ensure they receive a full evaluation by a medical professional, who can conduct various tests and refer you to a specialist if necessary for therapy, medications or continued care.