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Cerebral Palsy


Topic Overview

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a group of problems that affect body movement and posture. It is related to a brain injury or to problems with brain development. It is one of the most common causes of lasting disability in children.

Cerebral palsy causes reflex movements that a person can't control and muscle tightness that may affect parts or all of the body. These problems can range from mild to severe. Intellectual disability, seizures, and vision and hearing problems can occur.

What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury or problem that occurs during pregnancy or birth or within the first 2 to 3 years of a child's life. It can be caused by:

  • Problems from being born too early (premature birth).
  • Not getting enough blood, oxygen, or other nutrients before or during birth.
  • A serious head injury.
  • A serious infection that can affect the brain, such as meningitis.
  • Some problems passed from parent to child (genetic conditions) that affect brain development.

In many cases, the exact cause of cerebral palsy is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Everyone with cerebral palsy has problems with body movement and posture. But the physical problems are worse for some people than for others.

Some people who have cerebral palsy have a slight limp or a hard time walking. Other people have little or no control over their arms and legs or other parts of the body, such as the mouth and tongue, which can cause problems with eating and speaking. People who have severe forms of cerebral palsy are more likely to have other problems, such as seizures or intellectual disability.

Babies with severe cerebral palsy often have problems with their posture. Their bodies may be either very floppy or very stiff. Birth defects sometimes occur along with cerebral palsy. Examples of birth defects include a spine that doesn't have the normal shape, a small jawbone, or a small head.

The brain injury or problem that causes cerebral palsy doesn't get worse over time. But new symptoms may appear, or symptoms may change or get worse as your child gets older. This is why some babies born with cerebral palsy don't show clear signs of it right away.

How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?

Your child's doctor will do a physical exam and ask you about your child's medical history. He or she will ask about your child's growth and about any problems you may have noticed. The doctor may also ask about your child's development.

Tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI of your child's head, may also be done. Or the doctor may look at ultrasound pictures of the brain. These tests can sometimes help the doctor find the cause of cerebral palsy.

If your child has a severe form of cerebral palsy, a doctor may be able to pinpoint the problem within the first few weeks of your child's life. But parents are often the first to notice that their baby does not have the abilities and skills that are common in other children in the same age group. These developmental delays can be early signs of cerebral palsy.

Even when the condition is present at birth, the signs of cerebral palsy may not be noticed until a child is 1 to 3 years old.

How is it treated?

Even though cerebral palsy can't be cured, you and your child can do things to help deal with symptoms, prevent problems, and make the most of your child's abilities. Physical therapy is one of the most important treatments. Medicines, surgery, and special equipment such as a walker can also help.

What can you do to cope?

Meeting the daily needs of a family member with cerebral palsy isn't easy. If your child has cerebral palsy, seek family and community support. It may help to join a support group or talk with other parents who have a child with special needs, so you don't feel alone.

You may also find counseling useful. It may help you understand and deal with the wide range of emotions you may feel. Your child will need help too. Providing emotional support for your child can help him or her cope with having cerebral palsy.

Learning that your child has cerebral palsy isn't easy, and raising a child who has it can be hard. But the more you know, the better you can care for and provide for your child.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about cerebral palsy:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with cerebral palsy:

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