Cerebral palsy (CP) is one of the most common congenital disorders. Congenital is a term used to mean "present from birth". CP is not just one disorder, but encompasses a number of neurological disorders.
CP often occurs before birth or during birth, or may occur during the first 3-5 years of life. Symptoms may appear in infancy or in early childhood, and are generally apparent by age three. CP does not worsen over time, but its effects may manifest themselves in different ways as an individual gets older. CP permanently affects body movement and muscle coordination.
Cerebral palsy is caused by abnormalities in the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination and movement. Damage to this part of the brain can occur in utero, as the baby develops, or as a consequence of birth.
It can also be caused by early trauma, such as a fall or as the result of an accident. It may also be caused by infection, such as meningitis or encephalitis.
One of the first signs of CP may be developmental delay, or failure to meet an expected milestone at a certain age. For example, the ability to walk unassisted may be delayed, causing a parent or physician to become concerned.
Symptoms may be very mild or severe, and may mean very little impairment or lifelong disability. Some of the symptoms that children might experience include:
- Tight or stiff muscles
- Exaggerated reflexes (spasticity)
- Lack of muscle coordination with voluntary movement (ataxia)
- Walking with one foot or leg dragging behind
- Walking forward on the toes
- Muscle tone which is too stiff or too floppy
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Vision, speech, or hearing disturbances
- Learning impairment
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
There are three main types of cerebral palsy, classified according to typical movement disorder involved:
1. Spastic-causes muscle stiffness and difficulty in movement 2. Athetoid-results in uncontrolled or involuntary movement 3. Ataxic-causes disturbed balance and depth perception
A delay in reaching expected developmental milestones is generally noted in children with cerebral palsy. Children with CP may also have poor muscle tone and poorly coordinated movements. Additionally, there may be persistence of infant reflexes beyond the time frame in which they should have disappeared.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy. Treatment begins immediately upon diagnosis, and may include several health care professionals, such as a pediatrician, a neurologist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, and a speech therapist.
Treatment is ongoing and focuses on assisting the child with cerebral palsy to function at the highest level possible. Braces, wheelchairs, and walkers may be used to assist in mobilizing as needed. Medications may be prescribed which will decrease muscle spasm, prevent seizures, and alleviate any pain if present.