Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy

What is cerebral palsy?

If the part of the brain that controls the muscles is damaged while the brain is growing, cerebral palsy can result.

Therefore, cerebral palsy is not just one specific condition. It is used to refer to a large group of problems that can affect muscles, resulting in problems with body movement (motor disorders).

Cerebral palsy can lead to weakness and lack of co-ordination of the muscles. In some people, the condition results in the person simply being clumsy. Others are more severely affected and cannot walk.

What causes cerebral palsy?

Often the exact cause is unknown. However, it is known that anything that damages the brain while it is growing can lead to cerebral palsy. Therefore, the risk of developing this condition increases if a pregnant woman smokes, drinks alcohol to excess, has diabetes or contracts rubella (German measles).

Premature babies who experience complications are more likely to develop it than full-term babies.

Therefore, while the specific cause may be unknown, it is important that pregnant women take certain precautions during their pregnancy:

  • Do not smoke.
  • Do not drink alcohol to excess.
  • Have regular check-ups.
  • If you have a condition such as diabetes, have frequent check-ups and complete any treatment or medication recommended to you.

In some cases, cerebral palsy may be the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain during labour and delivery.

Children can also develop cerebral palsy in their first two years of life as the brain is still developing. They may suffer a head injury or contract a brain infection, such as meningitis, resulting in cerebral palsy.

What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

Symptoms can be confusing and there is some debate about the age of onset of symptoms. Some think the onset of symptoms must be before the age of two to be considered cerebral palsy, while others think age five is the cut-off point.

There are a number of things you can look out for:

  • A baby who is over two-months old and feels stiff or floppy, arches their back or stretches out their neck when you hold them.
  • A delay in the appearance of developmental milestones within the first two years, for example being able to sit up without support by around 6-months-old and being able to walk by around 14-months-old. (Remember, different children develop at different stages, therefore these ages are estimates. However, if you are worried that your child is not developing the way they should, visit your doctor for ease of mind.)
  • You may notice that your child only ever uses one hand to reach for things or uses only one side of their body when crawling.
  • Many infants with cerebral palsy have low muscle tone. This is usually noticeable before other problems, such as movement, become apparent.

There is no single test for cerebral palsy. A diagnosis is usually made only after the child has been carefully observed and certain tests have been carried out. Tests may include a neurological exam in which things like posture and reflexes are examined.

What is the prognosis for people with cerebral palsy?

This depends on the severity of the cerebral palsy. Some people may have a mild form which goes largely unnoticed. For example, they may have minor problems with muscle tone or be clumsy.

Others may have severe problems as a result of their cerebral palsy. They may be unable to purposefully move any part of their body, which can result in major complications such as breathing problems. Where such complications exist, the person may have a shorter life expectancy.

While cerebral palsy may be accompanied with mental handicap this is not always the case. It is particularly difficult to discern this in those children with severe muscle problems which can lead to mechanical difficulties in communication.

Children with only moderate disability generally have a normal life expectancy and most can lead a relatively independent and normal life, given certain supports.

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