Cerebral Palsy vs. Multiple Sclerosis: 5 Differences and 3 Similarities | MyMSTeam

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Cerebral Palsy vs. Multiple Sclerosis: 5 Differences and 3 Similarities

Posted on May 15, 2023

Cerebral palsy (CP) and multiple sclerosis (MS) both affect the neurological system. They can have similar symptoms, and it’s also possible to have both of these neurological disorders at the same time — though that’s quite rare. There are important differences in the causes and treatments for CP and MS, however. Read on to learn more.

How Are Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy Different?

These two neurological conditions have different causes, risk factors, symptoms, and prognoses.

1. Multiple Sclerosis Is an Autoimmune Condition, While Cerebral Palsy Is Related to Brain Injury

CP and MS are caused by different things. While the exact cause of MS is unknown, it is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. For people with MS, this causes lesions that damage the coverings of nerve fibers (known as myelin sheaths) throughout the central nervous system. Over time, these lesions cause the neurological symptoms of MS.

Cerebral palsy is the name for a group of disorders that affect mobility and muscle control and are caused by abnormal brain development or brain damage. In CP, this damage occurs before birth, during birth, or in early infancy. Often, the exact cause isn’t known. Some factors that might alter early brain development include:

  • Gene mutations that affect a fetus’s growing brain
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy
  • A traumatic brain injury during infancy
  • Lack of oxygen during labor and delivery
  • A stroke in a gestating fetus
  • Bleeding in a baby’s brain during pregnancy or shortly after birth
  • Infections in infancy

2. Risk Factors Vary

MS and CP have different risk factors that make someone more likely to develop either condition. Although a history of infections can be a risk factor in both conditions, the specific infections are different. Traumatic brain injuries can also be a factor for both.

Risk Factors for Multiple Sclerosis

MS has well-known risk factors, including:

  • Being female
  • Being between 20 and 40 years old
  • Living in an area far from the equator
  • Being white and of Northern European descent
  • Having a history of infection with certain viruses (e.g., Epstein-Barr virus)
  • Smoking
  • Having a higher body weight
  • Having another autoimmune disease
  • Experiencing head trauma
  • Having a history of MS in your family

Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy

Risk factors for the development of CP are very different. They can involve infections during pregnancy or infancy. Some infections with known links to CP include:

  • Herpes
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Syphilis
  • Rubella
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Zika virus

Other types of illness in infancy can also increase the risk of developing CP. Such conditions include bacterial meningitis, severe jaundice (yellowing of the skin), and bleeding caused by a stroke. Exposure to certain toxic chemicals can also be a factor.

Circumstances surrounding pregnancy and birth can also affect a baby’s risk of developing CP. These include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Multiple births at once
  • Complications during delivery

3. Motor Symptoms May Overlap, but Most Symptoms Are Different

Both MS and CP affect motor skills and walking, but most of the symptoms are quite different.

MS affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Symptoms of MS vary widely depending on where the central nervous system is damaged. MS symptoms can include:

  • Motor symptoms — Problems walking or speaking, muscle spasms, and weakness
  • Cognitive symptoms — Fatigue, memory problems, and depression
  • Vision problems
  • Bladder or bowel incontinence
  • Dizziness

CP is characterized primarily by problems with movement, posture, and muscle coordination. Children with CP may have issues with reaching developmental milestones, such as being able to sit up by 8 months old or walking by 18 months. CP affects everyone differently. Examples of symptoms of CP can include:

  • Spasticity (stiff muscles)
  • Poor muscle tone, weak arms or legs, or feeling “floppy”
  • Trouble with balance and walking
  • Uncontrollable, fidgety movements
  • Shaking hands
  • Walking on tiptoes

Sometimes, people living with CP can have intellectual impairments, seizure disorders, joint and bone dysfunction (e.g., contractures), and difficulties with speech or vision.

4. Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis Emerge at Different Ages

MS and CP develop at different stages of life. MS most often affects people between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. Unlike cerebral palsy, MS does not appear in fetuses or infants. In fact, less than 1 percent of people with MS are diagnosed before age 10.

On the other hand, CP affects babies and infants. When CP symptoms are moderate or severe, a child is typically diagnosed by the time they are 2 years old. Mild CP might not be recognized until age 4 or 5. Cerebral palsy does not develop after age 5, as any brain injury that happened during gestation or infancy has healed by that age.

5. Multiple Sclerosis Worsens Over Time, While Cerebral Palsy Does Not

MS is a progressive disease, meaning disability accumulates over time. There are different types of MS, and there are some types in which disability seems to stabilize for periods of time. Many people initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) –– the most common type of MS. Eventually, most people develop secondary progressive MS (SPMS) and experience gradual worsening of disability as damage to the nervous system accumulates.

CP does not get worse over time. However, sometimes symptoms and needs can change as children grow into adulthood.

What Do Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy Have in Common?

As neurological conditions, both MS and CP can cause motor symptoms. They also share some risk factors. Here are three significant ways in which they’re similar.

1. Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis Are Lifelong Conditions

Both CP and MS are lifelong conditions, meaning that at present, there are no cures for either disease. However, there are treatments available for both CP and MS.

MS is rarely fatal. People living with MS generally have a life expectancy of five to 10 years less than people without MS. This estimate depends on an individual’s symptoms and other medical problems, and it may not reflect recent improvements in newer treatments.

In CP, life expectancy is very closely linked to which symptoms a person has and how severe they are. People with mild CP have an average life expectancy, while those with very severe cerebral palsy may have a reduced likelihood of living to age 20.

2. Both Conditions Can Impact Mobility

Both CP and MS can have a significant effect on mobility, which will determine one’s independence, quality of life, and ability to care for their daily needs. CP affects a person’s ability to walk; it’s one of the hallmarks of the disease. Walking problems with CP can vary from simply having an unusual gait to not being able to walk at all.

Likewise, many people living with MS develop walking difficulties, often due to muscle weakness, spasticity, and lack of balance. The severity of walking problems also varies for people with MS.

3. Treatment Options Are Available for Both Conditions

Both CP and MS have a variety of treatment options and interventions available. A variety of medications are available for CP symptoms, mainly aimed at treating muscle tightness. These include oral muscle relaxants, medications that help with drooling, and muscle or nerve injections. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy are also part of a CP treatment plan.

In severe cases, surgery can help with tight muscles or correcting bone abnormalities. Other medications may also be needed to treat conditions associated with CP, such as seizures.

Treatment for MS revolves around medications to prevent relapses and slow disease progression (known as disease-modifying therapies), as well as medication to manage symptoms. Lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a healthy diet, are also an important part of the treatment plan for MS. Your neurologist can help you figure out the best treatment plan for you.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 198,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

Have you been diagnosed with MS or cerebral palsy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on May 15, 2023
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Luc Jasmin, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS (C), FACS is a board-certified neurosurgery specialist. Learn more about him here.
Remi A. Kessler, M.D. is affiliated with the Medical University of South Carolina and Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about her here.

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