What Is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is one of the most common congenital (existing before birth or at birth) disorders of childhood. About 500,000 children and adults of all ages in the United States have the condition.
The three types of CP are:
- spastic cerebral palsy — causes stiffness and movement difficulties
- athetoid cerebral palsy — leads to involuntary and uncontrolled movements
- ataxic cerebral palsy — causes a disturbed sense of balance and depth perception
Cerebral palsy affects muscle control and coordination, so even simple movements — like standing still — are difficult. Other vital functions that also involve motor skills and muscles — such as breathing, bladder and bowel control, eating, and learning — are also affected when a child has CP. Cerebral palsy does not get worse over time.
Causes of Cerebral Palsy
The exact causes of most cases of CP are unknown, but many are the result of problems during pregnancy in which the brain is either damaged or doesn't develop normally. This can be due to infections, maternal health problems, or something else that interferes with oxygen reaching the fetal brain. Problems during labor and delivery can cause CP in some cases.
Premature babies — particularly those who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,510 grams) — have a higher risk of CP than babies that are carried full-term, as are other low birth weight babies and multiple births, such as twins and triplets.
Brain damage in infancy or early childhood can also lead to CP. A baby or toddler might suffer this damage because of lead poisoning, bacterial meningitis, malnutrition, being shaken as an infant (shaken baby syndrome), or being in a car accident while not properly restrained.
How Cerebral Palsy Affects Development
Children with CP have varying degrees of physical disability. Some have only mild impairment, while others are severely affected.
Associated medical problems may include visual impairment or blindness, hearing loss, food aspiration (the sucking of food or fluid into the lungs), gastroesophageal reflux (spitting up), speech problems, drooling, tooth decay, sleep disorders, osteoporosis (weak, brittle bones), and behavior problems. Seizures, speech and communication problems, and mental retardation are also common among kids with CP. Many have problems that may require ongoing therapy and devices such as braces or wheelchairs.
Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy
CP may be diagnosed very early in an infant known to be at risk for developing the condition because of premature birth or other health problems. Doctors, such as pediatricians and developmental and neurological specialists, usually follow these kids closely from birth so that they can identify and address any developmental delays or problems with muscle function that might indicate CP.
In a baby carried to term with no other obvious risk factors for CP, it may be difficult to diagnose the disorder in the first year of life. Often doctors aren’t able to diagnose CP until they see a delay in normal developmental milestones — such as reaching for toys by 4 months or sitting up by 7 months — which can be signs of CP. Abnormal muscle tone, poorly coordinated movements, and the persistence of infant reflexes beyond the age at which they are expected to disappear can also be signs. If these developmental milestones are only mildly delayed, the diagnosis of CP may not be made until the child is a toddler.