Cerebral palsy (CP) causes a child to have problems with certain motor skills. This means that he or she may have trouble with coordination, movement, or muscle control. These problems are caused by damage or abnormal development of certain brain areas. Many children with cerebral palsy have normal intelligence in spite of their difficulty with motor skills. CP can range in severity, but it doesn’t get worse over time. Unfortunately, CP does not get better over time either. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.
Most children with CP are born with it. CP is caused by problems with brain development before birth or early injury to the brain during the time of birth. CP is slightly more common in boys than girls. Babies with low birth weight or who are born before their due date (premature babies) are more likely to have the condition. Often there is no definite cause of CP.
CP can be divided into different types. These include:
Spastic CP, in which a child has more muscle tone than normal in the arms, torso, or legs. This causes the muscles to be stiff and jerk or spasm. In some cases, only one side of the body is affected.
Athetoid CP, in which a child has poor muscle control. This causes uncontrolled or sudden movements of the arms, legs, hands, or feet. In some cases, the facial muscles or the tongue is also affected.
Ataxic CP, in which a child has less muscle tone than normal and more difficulty in coordinating movement. This can lead to problems walking or doing certain tasks such as dressing himself or herself.
CP affects each child differently. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Your child may have CP involving one or more of the following symptoms:
Weak muscles in the face, tongue (which can cause slurred speech), arms, legs, hands, or feet
Trouble swallowing, which causes drooling
Wide gait (legs spread far apart when walking)
Children with CP are more likely to have certain other health problems. These can include:
Vision, hearing, or speech problems
Convulsions or seizures
Learning or reasoning problems including intellectual disability
Trouble with feeding
Bladder or bowel control problems
Abnormal bone development
Your child’s healthcare provider will give you more information about any other health problems your child has.
Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a healthcare provider who specializes in treating nervous system problems. No single test can diagnose CP. It takes time to figure out this diagnosis.
If CP is suspected, the healthcare provider does a physical exam. He or she also asks about your child’s symptoms and health history. This is to check for the timing of possible brain damage or injury to your child.
The healthcare provider may order blood tests or imaging tests for your child. These can sometimes help the provider learn more about your child’s condition.
Most important is the screening of developmental milestones. Failing to meet motor milestones is a sign of cerebral palsy.
CP usually cannot be diagnosed until your child is about 2 years old. It takes time for the healthcare provider to track your child's physical and mental development. Babies with CP are slower to develop certain skills. For example, a child may take a longer amount of time learning how to roll over, sit up, crawl, or walk. Based on your child's progress by age 2, your child's healthcare provider can then confirm the diagnosis. Usually by age 3 or 4, there is enough information to predict how your child will function in the years to come.
CP is permanent and cannot be cured. The goals of treating CP are to reduce pain, make it easier to move, and prevent complications from the movement problems.
Treatment of CP varies depending on your child's needs. Your child will likely work with a team of teachers, healthcare providers, nurses, and therapists to learn how to manage his or her condition.
Most children are helped by supportive services. These can include special learning facilities, or physical, occupational, or speech therapy.
Medicines may be prescribed to help manage symptoms, such as muscle spasms. These may include newer treatment choices. One is the medicine baclofen, which can help manage the spasticity that comes with cerebral palsy. Another is botulinum toxin type A, which is a muscle-relaxing medicine that can help relieve the toe-walking that is related to muscle tightening.
Other medicines can be used to decrease uncontrollable movements.
Your child may need aids such as a walker or leg braces to help maintain balance and help with walking. Some children may not walk at all and need a wheelchair.
Many children with cerebral palsy will need tendon release surgery later in life in order to improve severe spasticity and reduce pain.
CP is an ongoing problem that needs to be managed. With regular medical care and supportive services, your child can learn how to be as active and independent as possible.
Although life expectancy depends on many factors, most people with CP can enjoy a healthy lifespan. It is important that life-threatening conditions connected to CP are managed, and health care and lifestyle supports are in place.
A positive outlook helps while supporting your child. Encourage your child to be active and to try new things. Consider counseling. This can help you and your child deal with any worries or concerns. And seek help from friends, community resources, and support groups. The more you learn about your child’s condition, the more in control you may feel. For more information about CP, start by contacting United Cerebral Palsy at www.ucp.org.