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What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the name of a group of conditions affecting muscles and nerves. It isn’t inherited but begins early in life. The three types of CP are spastic (most common), athetoid, and ataxic.

CP is a lifelong condition that doesn’t get worse, and most children with CP have a normal life span.

Some people are mildly affected and can live fairly normal lives. Others are more severely disabled. Many people have normal intelligence despite their severe physical disabilities.

What Causes CP?

The cause is injury to parts of the brain that control the ability to use muscles. Cerebral means related to the brain. Palsy means weakness or problems using muscles. The injury can happen during pregnancy, during birth, or early in childhood. It can involve not having enough oxygen during or after birth, an infection (e.g., German measles) that spreads from mother to baby, or a serious infection early in life.

What Are the Symptoms of CP?

CP can be mild, moderate, or severe. Symptoms include abnormal movements of arms and legs, feeding problems in an infant, poor muscle tone early in life, slow development of walking and talking, abnormal body posture, muscle spasms, body stiffness, poor coordination, and crossed eyes.

Children with spastic CP have muscle tightness, with stiff movements, especially in the legs, arms, and back. Athetoid CP affects the whole body, so children have problems with balance and coordination. They have slow, uncontrolled movements and low muscle tone that makes it hard to sit straight and walk. Symptoms of mixed CP are a combination of these two types.

Sometimes children with CP can have problems learning, hearing, or seeing, or have mental retardation.

How Is CP Diagnosed?

The health care provider will do a physical examination and carefully check your child’s movement.

The health care provider may order tests to confirm CP, including CT and MRI of the brain, ultrasound, and nerve conduction tests.

How Is CP Treated?

CP cannot be cured, but symptoms and disabilities can be helped with physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), psychological counseling, and surgery. PT helps children develop stronger muscles and work on skills such as walking, sitting, and balance. Special equipment, such as braces and splints, may also benefit some children. With OT, children develop fine motor skills, such as those needed for dressing, feeding, and writing. Speech and language therapy helps children with speaking skills. Children and families are aided by support, special education, and related services.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing CP:

  • DO avoid preventable risks such as German measles during pregnancy.
  • DO call your health care provider about treatments that could help symptoms.
  • DO remember that states must meet educational needs of children with disabilities, such as through early intervention services.
  • DO make sure special education and related services are provided for school-age children and preschoolers through school systems.
  • DO have a positive attitude about the person with CP.
  • DON’T smoke, use alcohol, or abuse drugs during pregnancy.
  • DON’T forget about assistive devices, such as voice synthesizers and computer technology.
  • DON’T give up hope. Progress in people with CP is usually slow.

Contact the following sources:

  • United Cerebral Palsy Foundation
    Tel: (800) 872-5827
  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
    Tel: (800) 695-0285
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
    Tel: (800) 352-9424

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc

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