Cerebral Palsy

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Beth C. Registered Nurse, Legal Nurse Consultant Certified
Quick Answer

Cerebral palsy is a group of movement disorders that affect motor skills and can lead to physical and mental handicaps. Although these handicaps cannot be cured, there are many different treatment options to help manage the condition.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

kids laughingCerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect the brain’s control over muscles and the nervous system. It develops due to brain damage shortly before or during birth.

The condition affects different parts of the body, so its symptoms and severity can vary. Additionally, cerebral palsy does not improve or worsen as a child grows, but complications stemming from the condition can cause additional health issues.

Cerebral palsy has no cure, but therapy, medication, and surgery can help improve your child’s quality of life. Depending on how severe their condition is, patients may be able to live independently or they may require lifelong care. Fortunately, there are various support and financial resources available to help families affected by cerebral palsy.

Cerebral Palsy Causes

Damage to an infant’s brain during pregnancy, labor, or delivery is the primary cause of cerebral palsy. This damage may impact different parts of the brain (motor cortex, basal ganglia, and/or cerebellum), which each control different motor movements.

  • Motor cortex

    Damage to the motor cortex causes spastic cerebral palsy. Your child may experience increased muscle tone, making their muscles very stiff.

  • Basal ganglia

    Damage to the basal ganglia causes dyskinetic cerebral palsy. Your child’s muscle tone can alternate from too loose to too tight, which may cause them to struggle to control their arms and legs.

  • Cerebellum

    Damage to the cerebellum causes ataxic cerebral palsy. Your child may struggle with their balance and coordination.

Damage to any part of the brain can be caused by a number of different risk factors, the most prevalent being head injury or trauma. Premature birth or low birth weight can also lead to brain damage and other complications.

Another risk factor that may lead to cerebral palsy-related brain damage is complications shortly before or during delivery that cause bleeding or lack of oxygen to the brain (hypoxia). Additionally, if the mother suffers from an infection while pregnant, the virus can attack the fetus and cause severe issues.

With proper medical care, your child is less likely to suffer brain damage. This may help prevent the condition.

Cerebral Palsy and Medical Negligence

Cerebral palsy is sometimes a result of medical negligence, which occurs when medical staff do not meet the standard level of care expected of them, putting your child in danger before and during childbirth.

Some forms of medical negligence that can result in cerebral palsy include:

  • Failure to monitor the baby’s heartbeat and vital signs
  • Failure to perform an emergency C-section in a timely manner
  • Misuse of forceps and vacuum extractors
  • Forcing, pulling, or twisting babies out of the birth canal during delivery

Your health care team may be held responsible for failing to take the necessary precautions to prevent your child’s birth injury. If your health care team did not provide you with proper medical treatment and support, they could be at fault for your child’s cerebral palsy. In this case, you may be able to file a lawsuit to help pay for your child’s treatment and other costs.

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Types of Cerebral Palsy

There are four main cerebral palsy types, with each type affecting different areas of the brain and presenting different symptoms.

Spastic Cerebral Palsy

Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common form of the condition, comprising up to 80% of patients. Spastic cerebral palsy is caused by trauma or injury to the motor cortex portion of the brain before, during, or after childbirth.

Those who suffer from spastic cerebral palsy experience chronically tense muscles, or hypertonia. Hypertonia may impact other parts of the body as well, resulting in loss of control over the affected limbs.

There are 3 subtypes of spastic cerebral palsy.

Spastic Hemiplegia

This subtype of cerebral palsy impacts only the left or right side of the body. Common signs of spastic hemiplegia are one constantly clenched first, or limbs consistently tucked into one side of the body.

Spastic Diplegia

This particular subtype impacts only the lower half of the body. Infants and toddlers may have difficulty learning to walk, but most children eventually walk using their toes instead of the whole foot. It is also called “Little’s Disease.”

Spastic Quadriplegia

Spastic quadriplegia impacts all four limbs and the entire body, making it the most severe form of spastic cerebral palsy. The effects of spastic quadriplegia become apparent early in life, and parents will notice this when their child fails to meet anticipated baby milestones, such as controlling their head and crawling within one year.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Ataxic cerebral palsy is the rarest type of cerebral palsy, accounting for about 5-10% of patients.

This type occurs when the cerebellum of the brain is permanently damaged. The cerebellum does not control physical movement but sends signals to the body for muscles to move. These signals may occur too slowly or do not occur at all, resulting in unsteady movement, reduced muscle tone, and lack of coordination (ataxia).

Ataxia typically affects all or most of the body at once, but may impact any part of the body, including arms, legs, fingers, eyes, and throat.

A mix of early intervention, therapy, and medication can help people with ataxic cerebral palsy thrive in their daily lives.

Athetoid Cerebral Palsy

Athetoid cerebral palsy, also known as dyskinetic cerebral palsy, is found in 20% of patients.

Athetoid cerebral palsy is caused by injury to the basal ganglia, an area of the brain responsible for automatic movement, fine voluntary movements, and posture. The particular type of athetoid cerebral palsy experienced depends on which part of the basal ganglia is damaged.

There are two subtypes of athetoid cerebral palsy:

  • Choreoathetoid dyskinetic cerebral palsy: Characterized by two different types of movements: athetosis and chorea. Patients experience fluctuations in muscle tone that can affect their posture and movements.
  • Dystonic dyskinetic cerebral palsy: Causes muscle contractions when a patient tries to move, leading to awkward postures, repetitive movements, and slow twisting.

Mixed Type Cerebral Palsy

Since cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that impair the functions of the brain and nervous systems, mixed cerebral palsy is a combination of different cerebral palsy types. Mixed type cerebral palsy can impair your child’s movement, cognition, sight, and hearing.

Cerebral Palsy Symptoms

Cerebral palsy symptoms may affect muscle control, coordination, balance, and cognitive development. The type and severity of a patient’s condition influence the symptoms they show. In most cases, symptoms take months or years to become apparent.

Physical symptoms include:
  • Stiff muscle tone
  • Floppy muscle tone
  • Variations in muscle tone
  • Involuntary movements or tremors
  • Lack of coordination
  • Difficulty walking or toe-walking
  • Favoring one side of the body
  • Difficulty sucking, eating, or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Lack of fine motor skills
Neurological symptoms include:
  • Delays in developmental skills
  • Learning disabilities
  • Abnormal pain or touch perception
  • Seizures
Speech-related symptoms include:
  • Abnormal speech rhythms
  • Hoarse voice
  • Monotone voice
  • Nasally voice

Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

To make a cerebral palsy diagnosis, your child’s doctor will review their medical history and perform assessment tests to determine the specific type your cerebral palsy baby has — or if they have a different diagnosis altogether.

Did You Know? Most children who have cerebral palsy are diagnosed within the first 3 years of life.

Your child’s doctor may also order more advanced tests, such as an ultrasound, MRI, or EEG, to confirm the diagnosis. These tests allow doctors to study the brain to pinpoint the location and extent of the damage, helping them make a more accurate diagnosis.

To perform a complete assessment, the doctor may conduct hearing, vision, speech, and intellectual tests to take note of any developmental delays and observe your child’s muscles and motor skills. If you are still not sure whether your child has cerebral palsy, you can seek a second opinion.

Cerebral Palsy Life Expectancy

When a child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, they will also receive a prognosis, which is a doctor’s estimate on the short- and long-term outcomes for your child’s diagnosis.

According to the Life Expectancy Project, a research group at the University of California, the main factors considered for life expectancy in cerebral palsy are gross motor skills and feeding. A child that is able to fully move and self-feed has a life expectancy that is no different than that of a person without the condition.

CHILD ATwo-Year-Old with Mild Cerebral Palsy
  • Can feed self
  • Minimal motor skill impairment
  • Chance of living to 20 years old: 99%
CHILD BTwo-Year-Old with Severe Cerebral Palsy
  • Uses feeding tube
  • Wheelchair bound
  • Chance of living to 20 years old: 40%

Unlike many other serious health conditions, cerebral palsy does not worsen over time since the brain injury occurred in one isolated instance. Other co-mitigating factors and separate conditions not caused by the initial brain injury may impact health and life expectancy over time.

Those with a longer cerebral palsy prognosis usually have more mobility, proper medical care, adaptive equipment, and greater autonomy and independence.

Cerebral Palsy Treatment

kid with cerebral palsy playingAlthough there is no cure for cerebral palsy, there are many methods to treat it. Cerebral palsy treatment typically consists of measures to reverse the effects of the condition, as well as methods for your child to manage and overcome their symptoms. Common forms of treatment include medication, surgery, and therapy.

Different treatment plans may be recommended depending on the severity of your child’s condition. Children with severe epilepsy may be prescribed medication to prevent seizures, while children with milder cases of cerebral palsy may only require ongoing physical therapy. Surgery is usually considered a last resort.

Ultimately, all forms of cerebral palsy treatment can be used to improve the quality of life for children with the condition and help them live more independently.

Therapy

Therapy is one of the best options to treat and manage your child’s cerebral palsy. Therapists use different methods to decrease cerebral palsy symptoms.

Different cerebral palsy therapies:

  • Physical therapy: Uses specific exercises to help improve flexibility, balance, movement, motor skills, and strengthen muscles.
  • Speech therapy: Helps children who have difficulty with the movement of their mouth, affecting their speech and communication skills.
  • Occupational therapy: Focuses on helping children become more independent in school, work, and home environments.
  • Aquatic therapy: Helps children move muscles more freely while immersed in water. Trained therapists hold large therapy sessions in pools with water-focused adaptive exercise equipment.

Medication

There are several different types of cerebral palsy medications that can help treat symptoms such as seizures and spasticity. Since each child is different, the use of medications can vary depending on a child’s prevalent symptoms.

Surgery

Surgery may be necessary if symptoms do not respond well to other forms of treatment or cause complications that cannot be eased by therapy. Certain cerebral palsy surgeries help to reduce symptoms such as muscle spasticity or contractures.

Cerebral Palsy Financial Assistance

a child with cerebral palsy and his motherCerebral palsy treatment costs can take a financial toll on your family — and if your child’s birth injury was preventable, you should not be solely responsible for medical bills. Fortunately, there are many resources your family can take advantage of to get the financial assistance you deserve.

Founded to alleviate financial stressors on families affected by cerebral palsy, financial support organizations offer grants and assistance to pay for therapy, medications, surgeries, and education.

Filing a cerebral palsy lawsuit may also give families the opportunity to receive the financial compensation needed to pay for their child’s treatment.

The amount of compensation received from a cerebral case can vary based on the severity of your child’s condition. Some families have been awarded millions to provide care and reparations for pain and suffering. Your cerebral palsy lawyer can analyze the facts of your case and try to secure the highest amount of compensation possible.

If your child developed cerebral palsy stemming from medical malpractice or negligence, you can help protect your child’s future by pursuing the justice you may deserve.

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Do you suspect your child’s birth injury was caused by medical malpractice?

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Cerebral Palsy FAQ

When is cerebral palsy diagnosed?

Although cerebral palsy is almost always present at birth, it often goes undetected until years after child birth, making it difficult to diagnose early on in life. This can make it difficult for a doctor to pinpoint the exact cause of the damage that led to your child’s condition.

What does mild cerebral palsy look like?

The signs of mild cerebral palsy often go undetected for years. Based on the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS), children with mild cerebral palsy fall in the Level I classification and are fully independent and able to perform most physical activities with only slight problems in balance or coordination.

How common is cerebral palsy?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that cerebral palsy is the most common childhood motor disability, with about 1 in 323 children diagnosed. Also, according to the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), there are about 8,000 cases of cerebral palsy each year in the United States.

How does cerebral palsy affect the brain?

Cerebral palsy is caused by permanent damage to the brain, which can affect the brain’s control over muscles and the nervous system. Muscles are unable to respond to the brain’s signals for movement, causing spastic or floppy muscles and overall lack of motor function. Cerebral palsy can also affect cognitive development and overall brain functioning.

Birth Injury Support Team
Nurse BethReviewed by:Beth C.

Registered Nurse, Legal Nurse Consultant Certified

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Beth C. has over 18 years of experience as a Registered Nurse. She spent nearly half of that time working in labor and delivery units. This, combined with her own experience giving birth to a premature baby, ignite Beth’s passion for helping new mothers access the information and resources they deserve.

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

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