Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral Palsy Overview

Reviewed: May 7, 2014

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a medical term for a group of neurological disorders that cause stiff muscles, uncontrollable movements and poor balance and coordination.

CP occurs when areas of the brain that control movement and posture show abnormalities or are damaged before, during, or after birth.

Babies can be born with CP or it may be recognized in the first few years of life. CP is the most common motor disability in childhood. It is not progressive, that is, it does not tend to worsen over time, however, symptoms may change over a life-time.

The most common form is spastic CP, which is characterized by increased muscle tone and stiff muscles. Other forms include dyskinetic CP, ataxic CP and mixed CP.

Cerebral Palsy Symptoms

Many signs and symptoms are not readily visible at birth, except in some severe cases, and may appear within the first three to five years of life as the brain and child develop. The signs and symptoms of CP vary greatly from person to person. Early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before 3 years of age. Babies with cerebral palsy are often slow to roll over, sit, crawl, smile, stand, or walk. Some babies without CP also have some of these signs.


Cerebral Palsy Causes

CP is caused by abnormal development of the brain or damage to the developing brain (which can happen before, during or within a month after birth) that can affect a person's ability to move and to maintain balance and posture.

Lack of oxygen during the birth process can cause CP. However, this is believed to be the cause in only a small percentage of cases.

CP related to brain damage that occurred before or during birth is responsible for the majority of cases and is called congenital CP.

In many cases, the specific cause is not known. CP caused by brain damage that occurs more than 28 days after birth is called acquired CP. Acquired CP is often associated with meningitis or a head injury.

Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

Diagnosing CP can take several steps and there is no one test that can definitively confirm the child has cerebral palsy. No one test can rule out CP, either.

In severe cases, diagnosis can be made soon after birth. However, in milder cases, diagnosis may take several years, often beginning with missed developmental milestones. The child's growth and development must be tracked over time.

Motor or movement delays are evaluated with developmental screening tests.

As there are several types of CP, developmental evaluation is used to diagnose which type is affecting the child.

While other conditions must be ruled out first, the earlier a CP diagnosis can be made, the better, as treatment early on can help the child reach his or her full potential.

Living With Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy poses some challenges and can make simple tasks difficult and more time consuming. Most children with mild or moderate CP are able to attend school and enjoy lots of activities. Severe cerebral palsy means a child will require a wheelchair and will have significant challenges in accomplishing daily activities. With the help, patience, understanding of others, children with CP can overcome many challenges. 


Cerebral Palsy Treatments

As each individual with CP has a unique impairment, there is no one specific treatment. The goals of treatment for patients with CP include improving and optimizing mobility, controlling pain, prevention or management of complications, maximize communication and independence, and enhance quality of life.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but treatment can improve the lives of those who have it. Treatment includes medicines to treat seizures or relax muscles, braces, and physical, occupational and speech therapy. Treatment can also include massage, aqua, social and respiratory therapy.

Cerebral Palsy Other Treatments

Surgery and assistive technology and devices (e.g. cochlear implants) are sometimes necessary treatments. Surgery to correct vision or hearing, as well as neurosurgery, gastroenterology or orthopedic surgery may be required.

Cerebral Palsy Prognosis

Cerebral palsy can cause a wide range of disabilities. Some children might only require minimal assistance, while another child with cerebral palsy may need considerable, life-long care. Supportive treatment includes medicines, braces, and physical, occupational and speech therapy. With proper treatment, the lives of those with cerebral palsy can be impoved.