Cerebral palsy is not a single disease, but rather a group of disabilities that begin affecting children very early in life and continue throughout adulthood.
Children with cerebral palsy have weak or stiff muscles that prevent them from controlling muscle movements, often resulting in a lack of coordination. Cerebral palsy may be mild or severe.
Cerebral palsy is caused by a number of incidents, most of which occur during pregnancy or at birth.
Sometimes the cause is an infection in the mother, such as chicken pox or rubella, that damages the fetus' developing brain.
Another cause can be when blood flow to the fetus is obstructed during pregnancy. This also causes brain damage and cerebral palsy.
A third cause happens during a difficult delivery, when the baby's oxygen flow is cut off, resulting in brain damage and cerebral palsy.
Less commonly, cerebral palsy can develop in an infant, such as after an illness or physical trauma. These are some common post-birth causes of cerebral palsy:
Severe jaundice (a yellow skin-discoloration related to bile pigment)
Meningitis (a swelling of membranes near the infant's brain and spinal cord)
Viral encephalitis (a swelling of the brain due to viral infection)
Shaken baby syndrome (when an infant is shaken violently)
Head injury, especially from a car accident.
Types of Cerebral Palsy and their Symptoms
Three types of cerebral palsy exist:
Spastic Cerebral Palsy is the most common type. One or all of a baby's arms and legs may be affected with stiff and weak muscles. This prevents a child from moving freely or with much control; reflexes may be exaggerated and jerky.
In Athetotic Cerebral Palsy, the entire body is affected with slow, uncontrolled muscle movements. These muscle movements may seem noticeably slow or writhing.
Ataxic Cerebral Palsy is the least common and most severe of the three types. Someone with ataxic cerebral palsy lacks all balance. The person may have stiff or floppy muscles with no muscle coordination and will likely suffer from involuntary spasms or tremors.
Additional symptoms of cerebral palsy include:
Difficulty walking, eating, sucking (such as during breastfeeding), or speaking
Taking longer to learn how to sit up or crawl
Using only one side of his body or reaching things with only one hand
Intellectual disability or learning disability
Difficulty hearing, vision problems, dental problems, and involuntary urine leakage
Because there is no cure for cerebral palsy, children will carry these symptoms throughout their lives.
A doctor may conduct a series of tests to check for brain damage, which often indicates cerebral palsy. Images of the brain can reveal damage.
To get a 3D cross-sectional image of the brain, the doctor may perform a magnetic resonance imaging. In an MRI, radio waves and a magnetic field produce images of the child's brain. The child is given a mild sedative for the procedure. MRIs are painless and take about one hour to complete.
An ultrasound can also produce detailed images of the brain, by using high-frequency sound waves.
In a procedure known as computerized tomography (CT) scanning, X-rays capture cross-sectional images of the child’s brain. The child is given a mild sedative for the 20-minute procedure.
If one of the reasons for checking a child for cerebral palsy is due to seizures, a doctor may perform a specific test called an electroencephalograph. An EEG measures the electrical activity of the child’s brain.
To rule out the existence of an underlying problem causing a child's cerebral palsy, such as blood-clotting disorders, hearing impairment, vision problems, speech delays, or developmental delay, a specialist may perform specific blood tests or other laboratory exams.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy.
However, a doctor may suggest physical therapies that can help a child develop balance, coordination, flexibility, and muscle strength. A wheel chair, crutches, splints, and arm and leg braces can also improve the child’s mobility.
Another type of therapy, called occupational therapy, can teach a child to perform everyday tasks, such as writing and using fine motor skills. Many children will also utilize speech therapy to learn how to better eat, swallow, and either articulate or use sign language.
Muscle relaxants may reduce muscle stiffness. Relaxants include drugs such as baclofen, dantrolene, tizanidine, and diazepam.
If a child suffers from seizures, anticonvulsants can reduce the number of the attacks.
Botox injections are increasing in popularity as a therapy treatment. In small amounts, Botox can relax a muscle or nerve, and a therapist can massage the spot to promote flexibility and healthy muscle development. Over a period of time, Botox can help a young child stave off contractures, the shortening and hardening of muscles.
Doctors treating children who have deformed bones and joints may prescribe orthopedic surgery, which can replace bones and joints and correct positioning. This type of surgery can also lengthen muscles and tendons, which might become shortened due to contractures. The surgeon can cut nerves involved with muscle spasms, reducing pain and relaxing the muscles.