What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is the name for a group of disorders that affect your brain’s control over your muscles and nervous system. Cerebral palsy develops due to brain damage shortly before or during birth. It almost always is present at birth, but it may not be noticed until months or years later.
People with cerebral palsy may suffer from shaking or spastic limbs and a lack of control over their body movements. Cerebral palsy can also impair brain functioning, vision, and hearing.
Cerebral palsy does not improve or worsen as a child grows, but complications stemming from it can cause additional health issues like joint contractures. Therapies, medications, and surgery can all be used to manage the condition. However, these treatments can be out of reach for lower-income families.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that cerebral palsy is the most common childhood motor disability.
According to United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), there are about 8,000 cerebral palsy cases each year in the United States.
Depending on how serious the condition is, people with cerebral palsy may be able to live independently or may require lifelong care. Because cerebral palsy can affect different parts of the body, the symptoms and severity of the condition may differ from person to person.
However, because cerebral palsy has no cure, most people affected by it will require some form of medical help to manage their condition.
Cerebral Palsy Causes
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to an infant’s brain during pregnancy, labor or delivery. This damage can be caused by a number of different risk factors.
The most obvious risk factor of brain damage is trauma to the head. In addition, children born prematurely have a high risk of complications, including brain damage.
Complications before or during delivery can cause bleeding in the brain or a lack of oxygen. If the mother suffers from an infection while pregnant, the virus can attack the fetus and cause severe issues.
These are just a few of the many ways that your child can suffer brain damage and cerebral palsy. However, what ties them all together is prevention. Under proper medical care, the chances of your baby or fetus suffering brain damage is significantly decreased.
Because cerebral palsy is often not detected until years after the birth, its exact cause is often difficult to pin down. It also can be hard to diagnose early on, because the damage can present different symptoms that overlap with other conditions.
However, this does not excuse the doctors and nurses that delivered your baby from taking steps to prevent it. If you believe your medical team did not provide you with proper care, they could be at fault for your child’s cerebral palsy.
Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy
The symptoms of cerebral palsy that appear depend on which type you have and how severe it is. Cerebral palsy comes in many different forms since the damage that causes it can affect different areas of the brain.
There are four major types of cerebral palsy. They are classified by how they affect movement and muscle control.
The four major types are:
- Spastic Cerebral Palsy: Spastic cerebral palsy is marked by stiff and rigid muscles. This stiffness can cause contractures, which deforms the joints. It is estimated that 70% to 80% of all people with cerebral palsy have symptoms of spasticity.
- Ataxic Cerebral Palsy: Ataxic cerebral palsy is the least common type, affecting 5% to 10% of all people with the condition. Children with ataxic cerebral palsy have problems with balance, walking, vision, and coordination.
- Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy: Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the second most common type, accounting for 5% to 20% of all people with the condition. Those with dyskinetic cerebral palsy cannot control the movements of their limbs. They also have tense or limp muscles throughout their body.
- Mixed Type Cerebral Palsy: The remaining types of cerebral palsy are mixed type or combinations of the others. People with mixed type cerebral palsy may have stiff muscles in one part of the body and floppy muscles in another.
Symptoms may be limited to one side of the body or to a single limb in milder cases. In more severe instances, the symptoms could affect the whole body.
Cerebral palsy does not just cause issues with muscle tone and control. It can affect how your child thinks, eats, hears and speaks. Other issues may co-occur alongside cerebral palsy.
Other common symptoms of cerebral palsy include:
- Delays in reaching developmental milestones, such as pushing up on arms, sitting up alone or crawling
- Epileptic seizures
- Mental impairment or handicaps
- Inability to chew or swallow food properly
- Partial or total speech impairment
- Partial or total hearing impairment
- Behavioral problems
- Vision issues
Typically, symptoms of cerebral palsy do not worsen with age, as the initial brain injury that caused the child’s cerebral palsy does not change. However, its symptoms can cause complications if they are not treated early.
If you see signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy in your child, even if your child has not yet been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, contact your child’s doctor.
Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis
Most children who have cerebral palsy are diagnosed within the first three years of life. A doctor can diagnose your child with cerebral palsy after they review their medical history and perform certain tests. These tests can determine the specific type of cerebral palsy your child has or if they actually have another condition.
Doctors will first review your child’s physical condition, taking note of any symptoms you have seen. They will also look for issues you may not have noticed. Doctors typically note any developmental milestones your child missed. They also observe your child’s muscles and motor skills.
Doctors may order more advanced tests, such as ultrasounds, an MRI or an EEG, to confirm a cerebral palsy diagnosis. These tests allow doctors to study the brain for any damage. They can pinpoint the location and extent of the damage, allowing them to make a more accurate diagnosis.
If you are still not sure whether your child has cerebral palsy, you can seek a second opinion. A second opinion can either confirm a diagnosis or reveal that your child actually has another condition.
Cerebral Palsy Prognosis
A cerebral palsy prognosis will tell you how doctors expect the condition to progress. Because the brain damage that causes it does not change, the condition will not get any worse or improve. Typically, a child’s life expectancy with cerebral palsy is the same compared to someone without it.
However, in more extreme cases, a prognosis may be worse than you would expect. Because cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage, your child can have other diseases alongside it.
Children with cerebral palsy often experience epileptic seizures, issues with eating or severe mental handicaps. In rare cases, children may not be able to use any of their limbs. These conditions will require more intense treatments.
In addition, the chronic nature of the condition can cause issues. If not managed properly, symptoms can put your child’s body through years of wear and tear. This can lead to complications that harm their health.
This is why early treatment is so important. Early intervention decreases your child’s risk of developing additional complications.
Treatments for Cerebral Palsy
Medical experts have not found a cure for cerebral palsy at this time. However, treatments can improve the lives of those who have cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is typically treated with therapy, medications, and surgery. Doctors will often recommend several treatments at once to manage all aspects of the condition. Because cerebral palsy is a chronic condition, your child will need treatments throughout their life.
Treatment options will vary depending on the specific needs of your child. The overall goal of treatment is to manage and ease symptoms. Because symptoms can be very severe, treatments should be started as early as possible to prevent complications.
The treatment of cerebral palsy combines the talents of many different doctors, nurses, and therapists. Because cerebral palsy can affect many aspects of your child’s life, they may need to see many specialists. As a parent, you are the main controller of your child’s care, but your child’s primary doctor can recommend specialists.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating cerebral palsy because the condition varies from person to person. As a result, you may have to try out different treatment options or doctors before finding ones that best suit your child’s needs.
Therapy for Cerebral Palsy
Therapy for cerebral palsy can help manage or lessen its symptoms. Therapy is conducted by professional therapists, who each focus on specific areas to improve. There are many forms of therapy that can help improve different issues.
Physical therapy focuses on your child’s muscle tone. The goal of physical therapy is to improve the range of motion and prevent other issues, like contractions, from developing.
Occupational therapy helps adapt a child’s surroundings so they can rely less on the help of others. Occupational therapy can teach your child to use adaptive equipment to increase their mobility. Therapists can also teach parents how to modify their homes to suit the child’s needs.
Speech therapy aims to improve your child’s communication skills. This can be very useful, as children with cerebral palsy may not be able to speak properly. Therapists can help improve your child’s verbal and non-verbal skills by using speech exercises, sign language and/or electronic speech aids.
Therapy can be done in an office or at home. Therapists may also teach you how to perform exercises with your child outside of the sessions.
Medications for Cerebral Palsy
Medications can ease symptoms of cerebral palsy that cannot be solved by therapy. There are many different types of medication. They can be administered by mouth or as injections, suppositories, and intravenous pumps.
Doctors will prescribe medications for different issues. Medications are often used to treat muscle spasticity and seizures in people with cerebral palsy. They also can help prevent deficiencies if their condition prevents them from getting proper nutrients. Your child may need several medications at the same time to manage different issues.
While medications work effectively, nearly all of them have different side effects. These side effects can put your child at risk if you are not careful. When starting a new medication, it is important to note any side effects. If a medication seems to be doing more harm than good, your doctor can recommend other ones.
Surgery for Cerebral Palsy
Surgery is the most drastic treatment option for symptoms of cerebral palsy, but it can be very effective if done correctly. Surgery can correct common issues with your child’s feet, legs, hips or spinal column. There are a few different types of surgeries for cerebral palsy.
Stereotactic surgery seeks to repair the initial damage caused by a brain injury. By operating on several parts of the brain, surgeons aim to reduce some of the more extreme symptoms. Keep in mind that stereotactic surgery cannot cure cerebral palsy and should only be used for severe issues that do not respond to therapy or surgery.
A selective dorsal rhizotomy works by removing bones in the spine and stimulating nerve rootlets. If the rootlets do not respond to the stimulation, they may also be removed. This helps to reduce spasticity in patients. Selective dorsal rhizotomy works best when combined with physical therapy after the procedure.
Costs of Treatment
Cerebral palsy treatments can help children with the condition become as independent as possible. One child may require minimal help. Another may need care for life. The outlook for a child’s life depends on the severity of the condition in their specific case.
However, the cost in both time and expense to care for a child with cerebral palsy can be overwhelming for a family. Even a child with mild cerebral palsy may require treatments that cost thousands of dollars. The CDC reported that the average cost of care for a child with cerebral palsy was 10 times greater than a child without it.
If you are concerned that you cannot pay for your child’s condition, there are many helpful resources available to you. These resources include national organizations and government programs designed to help people who cannot afford unable to get the help they need.
You can also explore legal action in the form of a cerebral palsy lawsuit if you believe that your child’s injury could have been prevented with proper medical care. A cerebral palsy lawsuit could reward you with the money you need to pay for your child’s expenses.