Cerebral Palsy

Nurse Beth
Fact-Checked and Medically Reviewed by:
Beth C. Registered Nurse, Legal Nurse Consultant Certified
Quick Answer

Cerebral palsy is a group of movement disorders that affect how much control someone has over their own body. Cerebral palsy leads to physical and mental handicaps that cannot be cured. However, there are many different treatment options to help manage the condition.

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 spastic (tight) or floppy muscles and a lack of control over their body movements (motor function). Additionally, cerebral palsy affects a child’s development, 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 help 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. Additionally, according to United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), there are about 8,000 cases of cerebral palsy each year in the United States.

According to CDC data, about 1 in 323 children has been identified with cerebral palsy.

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

Damage to an infant’s brain during pregnancy, labor, or delivery may cause cerebral palsy. This damage can be caused by a number of different risk factors.

The most obvious cerebral palsy risk factor is head injury or trauma. Premature birth or low birth weight can also lead to complications, including brain damage.

Complications before or during delivery can cause bleeding in the brain or a lack of oxygen (asphyxia). If the mother suffers from an infection while pregnant, the virus can attack the fetus and cause severe issues.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), jaundice is also a risk factor for cerebral palsy.

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 possible 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 possibly prevent it. If you believe your health care team did not provide you with proper treatment and support, they could be at fault for your child’s cerebral palsy.

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Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy

The symptoms of cerebral palsy that appear depend on which type you have and how severe it is. Cerebral palsy can look different from person to person 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. Subtypes of spastic cerebral palsy include spastic diplegia, spastic hemiplegia, and spastic quadriplegia.
  • 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 experience involuntary movements of their limbs. They also have tense or limp muscles throughout their body. Dyskinetic cerebral palsy also includes the athetoid, choreoathetoid, and dystonic forms of the condition.
  • 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.

According to the CDC, “the most common type of mixed [cerebral palsy] is spastic-dyskinetic [cerebral palsy].”

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 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
  • Epilepsy
  • Mental impairment or handicaps (learning disabilities)
  • Inability to chew or swallow food properly; drooling
  • Malnutrition
  • Partial or total speech impairment
  • Partial or total hearing loss or 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. Diagnosing cerebral palsy involves a doctor reviewing a child’s medical history and performing certain tests. These cerebral palsy assessment tests can determine the specific type of cerebral palsy your child has or if they have a different diagnosis.

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 delays and 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 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 conditions alongside it.

Children with cerebral palsy often experience epileptic seizures, issues with eating, or severe intellectual disabilities. 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 can decrease 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, cerebral palsy treatments can improve the quality of life for those with 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

You can seek therapy for cerebral palsy to help manage or lessen the disorder’s symptoms. Therapy is conducted by professional therapists, who 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 contractures, 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 assistive devices 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 medications for cerebral palsy. 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 may 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 for some symptoms. Cerebral palsy 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.

One type is a selective dorsal rhizotomy, which works by cutting nerve rootlets in the spinal cord that are not sending signals normally to the muscles. This helps to reduce spasticity in patients and helps with walking and increases range of motion. 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 child birth injury 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 birth injury lawsuit if you believe that your child’s injury could have been prevented with proper medical care. A lawsuit could reward you with the money you need to pay for your child’s expenses.

To find out if you may qualify for child birth injury compensation, get a free legal case review today.

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.

View 10 Sources
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