What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a condition that happens when a child’s brain doesn’t develop normally. This can happen because the brain has a malformation that affects its development, or an injury can interrupt the normal development process. The problem starts before birth in most cases, but sometimes a brain injury during or after birth can cause cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy affects muscle movements, and that can affect different muscles all over the body. Since it’s caused by an interruption in the brain’s development, it can affect children differently based on when that development was interrupted and what parts of the brain were affected.
There are three different types of cerebral palsy, which cause different problems with the muscles.
- Spastic: The most common type, spastic cerebral palsy makes the muscles contract without relaxing. This can make them feel stiff.
- Dyskinetic: This type of cerebral palsy makes it difficult to control muscle movements in the limbs or the trunk.
- Ataxic: This type of cerebral palsy causes problems with balance and coordination.
There can still be mild and severe cases within each of the three types. Some kids with cerebral palsy may have problems with one limb and be unsteady when walking. Others may need a specialized wheelchair because they have problems with all four limbs and are unable to eat, talk or breathe on their own. Some may have problems with speech.
What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?
The symptoms of cerebral palsy can start to appear in babies. As a parent or caregiver, watch for signs and symptoms like:
- Not reaching for or gripping objects
- Not being able to sit up or roll over at the appropriate age
- Not crawling, standing or walking at an appropriate age
- The body seeming very stiff or very floppy
As children get older, you may notice symptoms like:
- Hearing loss
- Vision problems
- Learning disabilities
- Trouble speaking
- Trouble eating
- Bladder or bowel incontinence
The symptoms of cerebral palsy don’t spread to other parts of the body over time, but they can get worse in the part of the body that is already affected. For example, if your child has cerebral palsy in the legs, he or she could eventually dislocate a hip from frequent seizures or muscle spasms.
How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
There’s no special test to diagnose cerebral palsy. Doctors will do a physical exam to check the nerves and muscles, and your child may also need imaging tests and blood tests to rule out other causes. Diagnosing cerebral palsy usually means watching and waiting until doctors can get a clear picture of your child’s symptoms and make sure that another disease isn’t causing them.
Can cerebral palsy be cured?
Cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but there are treatments to help children and adults with cerebral palsy control their symptoms, be more independent and have healthier, fuller lives. These include:
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Speech therapy
- Medicines to relax the muscles or prevent seizures
- Massage therapy
- Assistive devices to help with movement
- Communication aids
Each case of cerebral palsy is different, so each person with cerebral palsy will have different abilities and challenges and will benefit from different treatments. Researchers, including those at Main Line Health, are working on new treatments and therapies every day.