What's in this article?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills (the ability to move in a coordinated and purposeful way).
CP usually is caused by brain damage that happens before or during a baby’s birth, or during the first 3 to 5 years of a child’s life. This brain damage also can lead to other health issues, including vision, hearing, and speech problems; and learning disabilities.
There is no cure for CP, but treatment, therapy, special equipment, and, in some cases, surgery can help kids who are living with the condition.
What Causes Cerebral Palsy?
Congenital cerebral palsy results from brain injury during a baby’s development in the womb. It is present at birth, although it may not be detected for months. It is responsible for CP in about 70% of the children who have it. An additional 20% are diagnosed with congenital cerebral palsy due to a brain injury during the birthing process. In most cases, the cause of congenital cerebral palsy is unknown. Some possible causes are:
- Infections during pregnancy that may damage a fetus’ developing nervous system. These include rubella (German measles), cytomegalovirus (a herpes-type virus), and toxoplasmosis (an infection caused by a parasite that can be carried in cat feces or inadequately cooked meat). Other infections in pregnant women that may go undetected are being recognized now as an important cause of developmental brain damage in the fetus.
- Severe jaundice in the infant. Jaundice is caused by excessive bilirubin in the blood. Normally, bilirubin is filtered out by the liver. But often, newborns’ livers need a few days to start doing this effectively, so it’s not uncommon for infants to have jaundice for a few days after birth. In most cases, phototherapy (light therapy) clears up jaundice, and there are no lasting health effects. However, in rare cases, severe, untreated jaundice can damage brain cells.
- Rh incompatibility between mother and infant. In this blood condition, the mother’s body produces antibodies that destroy the fetus’s blood cells. This, in turn, leads to a form of jaundice in the newborn and may cause brain damage.
- The physical and metabolic trauma of being born. This can precipitate brain damage in a fetus whose health has been threatened during development.
- Severe oxygen deprivation to the brain or significant trauma to the head during labor and delivery.
Cerebral Palsy Symptoms
Signs and symptoms can vary greatly. Movement and coordination problems associated with cerebral palsy may include:
- Variations in muscle tone, such as being either too stiff or too floppy
- Stiff muscles and exaggerated reflexes (spasticity)
- Stiff muscles with normal reflexes (rigidity)
- Lack of muscle coordination (ataxia)
- Tremors or involuntary movements
- Slow, writhing movements (athetosis)
- Delays in reaching motor skills milestones, such as pushing up on arms, sitting up alone or crawling
- Favoring one side of the body, such as reaching with only one hand or dragging a leg while crawling
- Difficulty walking, such as walking on toes, a crouched gait, a scissors-like gait with knees crossing or a wide gait
- Excessive drooling or problems with swallowing
- Difficulty with sucking or eating
- Delays in speech development or difficulty speaking
- Difficulty with precise motions, such as picking up a crayon or spoon
The disability associated with cerebral palsy may be limited primarily to one limb or one side of the body, or it may affect the whole body. The brain disorder causing cerebral palsy doesn’t change with time, so the symptoms usually don’t worsen with age, although the shortening of muscles and muscle rigidity may worsen if not treated aggressively.
Is cerebral palsy an impairment?
Yes. Impairment is the loss or limitation of function. Impairment is a condition that limits a person to some degree.Individuals diagnosed with cerebral palsy have a neurological condition which primarily causes physical impairment involving limitation or loss of function and mobility. They experience difficulty with muscle coordination, muscle control, muscle tone, reflexes, balance or posture. They may have difficulty with fine or gross motor skills. Their facial muscles may be affected.
Individuals with cerebral palsy often have associative and co-mitigating conditions that also impose additional challenges, such as a learning impairment, seizures, and vision or hearing loss.
A person can have impairment without having a disability.
Is cerebral palsy a disease?
No. Cerebral palsy is not a disease, it is actually a term used to describe a range of conditions that typically cause physical impairment.
Is there any treatment?
Cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but treatment will often improve a child’s capabilities. In general, the earlier treatment begins the better chance children have of overcoming developmental disabilities or learning new ways to accomplish the tasks that challenge them. Treatment may include physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, drugs to control seizures, relax muscle spasms, and alleviate pain; surgery to correct anatomical abnormalities or release tight muscles; braces and other orthotic devices; wheelchairs and rolling walkers; and communication aids such as computers with attached voice synthesizers.