Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common developmental disability in children in the United States. It is more common than autism, Down syndrome and epilepsy.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological-based condition in which damage to the area of the brain controlling muscle tone affects the individual’s movement and posture. It can lead to mental and physical retardation.
Unlike Down syndrome, there is no single cause of cerebral palsy. CP can be caused by a lack of proper brain development, or by neurological damage to a child’s developing brain.
Ten to 15 per cent of this type of damage is caused by infection, bleeding, or a lack of sufficient oxygen getting to the brain. This damage often occurs during the birth process, meaning that it can sometimes be prevented.
Symptoms of CP range from mild to severe. Signs of CP differ, depending on where damage in the brain is centered.
Children with CP don’t have full motor function, causing problems with muscle control and coordination.
There are many signs of cerebral palsy. These can include:
- muscle tightness and spasms
- speech, sight and hearing impairment
- involuntary movement
Mild cerebral palsy usually leads to very little impairment in a child. A child with mild cerebral palsy might have trouble reading, or lifting a heavy object with one of his hands.
Types of Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy is a term that encompasses several disorders affecting movement and posture.
Spastic cerebral palsy makes up 80% of all cases of cerebral palsy. Spastic cerebral palsy causes stiff and difficult motion that limits a child’s motion. For example, a child with spastic CP might grip an object too tightly or not tightly enough.
Another type of CP is athetoid cerebral palsy. This type of CP, which makes up 10% of all CP cases, leads to uncontrolled and involuntary movement, particularly in the face and hands, and also affects a child’s posture. Athetoid cerebral palsy affects feeding and reaching capabilities in the child.
Ataxic cerebral palsy accounts for five to 10% of all CP cases. It causes a poor sense of balance and depth perception, impairs coordination and leads to shaking that is similarly seen in the elderly. It can impact writing and other tasks requiring fine motor skills.
Mixed cerebral palsy is a combination of the above forms of the disease; the most common combination is spasticity and athetoid CP. This type of cerebral palsy makes up approximately 10% of all incidences of CP.
Hypotonic cerebral palsy results due to an injury to the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that coordinates body movements. This type of CP makes a child appear floppy in appearance; the child has little to no head control and will have difficulty sitting upright and so will often slouch. While the infant will have good arm and leg movements, his movements at the knees, hips and elbows will look exaggerated. A child with hypotonic cerebral palsy will also have trouble chewing.
There are certain risk factors that increase a child’s chances of developing cerebral palsy. Babies born with brain abnormalities are most at risk; brain malformations are often accompanied by abnormalities in the heart, kidneys and spine. Newborns who have a seizure are at an increased risk of cerebral palsy.
Premature babies are also at greater risk of CP. Babies born to mothers at, or under, the age of 20; or mothers at, or over, the age of 40, are also more likely to develop cerebral palsy; babies born to fathers at, or over, the age of 20 are also at a greater risk of developing CP. African American babies are also more likely to develop cerebral palsy.
Diagnosis and Treatment
CP diagnosis varies greatly because the symptoms of cerebral palsy depend on the type of injury incurred. A sign of cerebral palsy in one child may not be found in another.
Diagnosing cerebral palsy is usually done through a physical exam designed to test muscle tone and development; delayed motor function means that infants are slower to develop and this can be a sign for parents. For example, if walking does not take place between the average age of 10 to 14 months, you should see your pediatrician.
Blood tests and x-rays often accompany physical examinations in diagnosing cerebral palsy. Because the signs of mild CP are not very obvious or disruptive, it can make it more difficult to diagnose mild cerebral palsy.
Therapeutic exercise can help treat movement problems associated with CP. Cerebral palsy treatment usually involves physical, occupational and speech-language treatment in order to improve posture, movement and speech.
Physical therapy helps children with cerebral palsy improve their muscle development, particularly in their legs, arms and abdomens. Physical therapy helps balance and movement, which CP can hinder.
Occupational therapy, on the other hand, helps development in the smaller muscles of the hands, feet and toes. This helps children with CP do things, like draw and use scissors, more comfortably.
The third component of cerebral palsy treatment is speech-language therapy. Speech-language therapy helps those with CP control the mouth and jaw. In children who can’t speak, sign language is taught instead.
There is currently no cure for CP, however, it is hoped that stem cell research could provide one in the future.
Find more information on stem cell research at Cord Blood Banking.
For information on interactive activities that can help improve the development of your special needs child, as well as addition information on cerebral palsy treatment options and schooling options, click here.