Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy describes a group of chronic conditions that adversely affect muscle coordination and bodily movements. These conditions are not caused by problems with muscles or nerves themselves, but rather a disability to portions of the brain that control these movements and postures. The brain disability develops some time during fetal development, birth, or infancy and while it is not progressive, secondary conditions caused by the disorder, such as muscle control or mobility, may fluctuate in severity over time. 

Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy

Symptoms of cerebral palsy differ, depending upon the category defined by the illness. There are three main categories that fall under the umbrella term of cerebral palsy. These are spastic, athetoid and ataxic.

  • Spastic cerebral palsy - This is the most common form of cerebral palsy, affecting 70 to 80% of patients. This condition is usually described based upon which limbs are affected, and causes muscles in those areas to be permanently contracted, causing stiffness of movement.
  • Athetoid or dyskinetic cerebral palsy - Only 10 to 20% of patients develop this form of cerebral palsy, which causes uncontrolled or involutary movements of the body, such as legs, arms, feet or hands, and sometimes face or tongue, causing grimacing facial expressions or drooling. Speech may be affected as well.
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy - This is the rarest form of cerebral palsy and affects less than 10% of patients. Sense of balance and depth perception are affected with this form, causing poor coordination, unsteady gait and wide-based gait, and difficulty with precise movements, such as buttoning a shirt or writing. Tremors may also be experienced, which can interrupt all types of movement.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

There is no one single cause for cerebral palsy, but most commonly this condition results from a brain injury during pregnancy. This is referred to as congenital cerebral palsy and is present at birth, though it may not be detected for some months. Causes for congenital cerebral palsy include lack of proper brain growth, lack of oxygen, blood type incompatibility, or infection of the mother with German measles or other viral diseases during early pregnancy. Causes during or after birth can include prolonged loss of oxygen, bacterial infections, severe jaundice, low birth weight, premature birth, and brain injury due to car accident or child abuse.

Diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy

In order to diagnose a condition as cerebral palsy, a doctor will need to perform certain tests and evaluations. Family medical history, including that of the mother and child, will be observed, as will the infant's motor skills. Slow developement, low muscle tone, unusual posture and abnormalities with reflexes may all indicate this condition. Over time, a physician can also observe progression of symptoms. Since cerebral palsy is not progressive, when symptoms continue to worsen and motor skills deteriorate, it's more likely the cause is stemming from a separate disorder. Alternatives may include genetic or muscle diseases, metabolic disorders, or tumors. In some cases, certain tests can be administered to discover a potential cause for cerebral palsy. A CT scan uses x-rays and computer technology to create a picture of the brain's tissues that may help to reveal underdevelopment, cysts or other physical problems. An MRI may also be of value, as it provides more detailed information than the CT scan. Finally, an ultrasonography uses sound waves to create a picture of the brain. This test can be performed early in life, even before the bones of the skull harden. This test can be administered more quickly, is less expensive and more precise than both the CT scan and the MRI.

Treatment for Cerebral Palsy

There is no cure for cerebral palsy, so treatment options are generally aimed at managing particular symptoms of the disorder. Early detection and observation can help doctors and other professionals to provide the most advantageous care options and treatment suggestions. Medication, surgery and leg braces may help to improve coordination and minimize the impact of disability. As patients age, support services are available to help them integrate successfully with society, in the form of employment, personal assistance, housing and other opportunities.