What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a term used to describe a group of chronic conditions affecting body movement and muscle coordination.
It is caused by damage to one or more specific areas of the brain, usually occurring during fetal development; before, during,
or shortly after birth; or during infancy. Thus, these disorders are not caused by problems in the muscles or nerves. Instead,
faulty development or damage to motor areas in the brain disrupt the brain's ability to adequately control movement and posture.
"Cerebral" refers to the brain and "palsy" to muscle weakness/poor control. Cerebral palsy itself is not progressive
(i.e. brain damage does not get worse); however, secondary conditions, such as muscle spasticity, can develop which may get
better over time, get worse, or remain the same. Cerebral palsy is not communicable. It is not a disease and should not
be referred to as such. Although cerebral palsy is not "curable" in the accepted sense, training and therapy can help
What are the causes?
Cerebral palsy is not a disorder with a single cause, like chicken pox or measles. It is a group of disorders with
similar problems in control of movement, but probably with a variety of causes.
Congenital cerebral palsy, results from brain injury during intra-uterine life. It is present at birth, although
it may not be detected for months. It is responsible for about 70% of children who have cerebral palsy. An additional 20 %
are diagnosed with congenital cerebral palsy due to a brain injury during the birthing process. In most cases, the cause of
congenital cerebral palsy is unknown.
One the other hand, in the United States, about 10 percent of children who have cerebral palsy acquire the disorder
after birth. (The figures are higher in underdeveloped countries.) Acquired cerebral palsy results from brain damage in the
first few months or years of life and can follow brain infections, such as bacterial meningitis or viral encephalitis, or
the results of head injury -- most often from a motor vehicle accident, a fall, or child abuse.
A large number of factors, which can injure the developing brain, may produce cerebral palsy. A risk factor is
not a cause; it is a variable which, when present, increases the chance of something occurring -- in this case, cerebral palsy.
Just because a risk factor is present does not mean cerebral palsy WILL occur; nor does the absence of a risk factor mean
that cerebral palsy will NOT occur. If a risk factor is present, it serves to alert parents and physicians to be even more
observant to the infant's development.
Risk factors for cerebral palsy include the following: premature birth; low birth weight; inability of the placenta
to provide the developing fetus with oxygen and nutrients; lack of growth factors during intra-uterine life; RH or A-B-O blood
type incompatibility between mother and infant; infection of the mother with German measles or other viral diseases in early
pregnancy; bacterial infection of the mother, fetus or infant that directly or indirectly attack the infant's central nervous
system; prolonged loss of oxygen during the birthing process and severe jaundice shortly after birth.
What are the early signs?
Early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before 18 months of age, and parents are often the first to suspect
that their infant is not developing motor skills normally. Infants with cerebral palsy are frequently slow to reach developmental
milestones, such as learning to roll over, sit, crawl, smile, or walk. This is sometimes called developmental delay.
Some affected children have abnormal muscle tone. Decreased muscle tone is called hypotonia; the baby may seem
flaccid and relaxed, even floppy. Increased muscle tone is called hypertonia, and the baby may seem stiff or rigid. In some
cases, the baby has an early period of hypotonia that progresses to hypertonia after the first 2 to 3 months of life. Affected
children may also have unusual posture or favor one side of their body.
Parents who are concerned about their baby's development for any reason should contact their physician, who can
help distinguish normal variation in development from a developmental disorder.
How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose cerebral palsy by testing an infant's motor skills and looking carefully at the mothers and infant's
medical history. In addition to checking for those symptoms described above -- slow development, abnormal muscle tone, and
unusual posture -- a physician also tests the infant's reflexes and looks for early development of hand preference.
Reflexes are movements that the body makes automatically in response to a specific cue. For example, if a newborn
baby is held on its back and tilted so the legs are above its head, the baby will automatically extend its arms in a gesture,
called the Moro reflex, that looks like an embrace. Babies normally lose this reflex after they reach 6 months, but those
with cerebral palsy may retain it for abnormally long periods. This is just one of several reflexes that a physician can check.
Doctors can also look for hand preferencea tendency to use either the right or left hand more often. When the doctor
holds an object in front and to the side of the infant, an infant with hand preference will use the favored hand to reach
for the object, even when it is held closer to the opposite hand. During the first 12 months of life, babies do not usually
show hand preference. But infants with spastic hemiplegia, in particular, may develop a preference much earlier, since the
hand on the unaffected side of their body is stronger and more useful.
The next step in diagnosing cerebral palsy is to rule out other disorders that can cause movement problems. Most
important, doctors must determine that the child's condition is not getting worse. Although its symptoms may change over time,
cerebral palsy by definition is not progressive. If a child is continuously losing additional motor skills, the problem more
likely springs from elsewhereincluding genetic diseases, muscle diseases, disorders of metabolism, or tumors in the nervous
system. The child's medical history, special diagnostic tests, and, in some cases, repeated check-ups can help confirm that
other disorders are not at fault.
The doctor may also order specialized tests to learn more about the possible cause of cerebral palsy. One such
test is computed tomography, or CT, a sophisticated imaging technique that uses X rays and a computer to create an anatomical
picture of the brain's tissues and structures. A CT scan may reveal brain areas that are underdeveloped, abnormal cysts (sacs
that are often filled with liquid) in the brain, or other physical problems. With the information from CT scans, doctors may
be better equipped to judge the long-term outlook for an affected child.
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a more recent brain imaging technique that is rapidly gaining widespread
use for identifying brain disorders. This technique uses a magnetic field and radio waves, rather than X rays. MRI gives better
pictures of structures or abnormal areas located near bone than CT.
A third test that can expose problems in brain tissues is ultrasonography. This technique bounces sound waves off
the brain and uses the pattern of echoes to form a picture, or sonogram, of its structures. Ultrasonography can be used in
infants before the bones of the skull harden and close. Although it is less precise than CT and MRI scanning, this technique
can detect cysts and structures in the brain, is less expensive, and does not require long periods of immobility.
Finally, physicians may want to look for other conditions that are linked to cerebral palsy, including seizure
disorders, mental impairment, and vision or hearing problems.
When the doctor suspects a seizure disorder, an electroencephalogram, or EEG, may be ordered. An EEG uses special
patches called electrodes placed on the scalp to record the electrical currents inside the brain. This recording can help
the doctor see telltale patterns in the brain's electrical activity that suggest a seizure disorder.
Can it be prevented?
Yes. Measures of prevention are increasingly possible today. Pregnant women are tested routinely for the Rh factor
and, if Rh negative, they can be immunized within 72 hours after the birth (or after the pregnancy terminates) and thereby
prevent adverse consequences of blood incompatibility in a subsequent pregnancy. If the woman has not been immunized, the
consequences of blood incompatibility in the newborn can be prevented by exchange transfusion in the baby. If a newborn baby
has jaundice, this can be treated with phytotherapy (light therapy) in the hospital nursery. Immunization against measles
for all women who have not had measles and are susceptible to becoming pregnant is an essential preventive measure. Other
preventive programs are directed towards the prevention of prematurity; reducing exposure of pregnant women to virus and other
infections; recognition and treatment of bacterial infection of the maternal reproductive and urinary tracts; avoiding unnecessary
exposure to X-rays, drugs and medications; and the control of diabetes, anemia and nutritional deficiencies. Of great importance
are optimal well being prior to conception, adequate prenatal care, and protecting infants from accidents or injury.
Can cerebral palsy be treated?
"Management" is a better word than "treatment." Management consists of helping the child achieve maximum potential
in growth and development. This should be started as early as possible with identification of the very young child who may
have a developmental brain disorder. A management program can then be started promptly wherein programs, physicians, therapists,
educators, nurses, social workers, and other professionals assist the family as well as the child. Certain medications, surgery,
and braces may be used to improve nerve and muscle coordination and prevent or minimize dysfunction.
As individuals mature, they may require support services such as personal assistance services, continuing therapy,
educational and vocational training, independent living services, counseling, transportation, recreation/leisure programs,
and employment opportunities, all essential to the developing adult. People with cerebral palsy can go to school, have jobs,
get married, raise families, and live in homes of their own. Most of all people with cerebral palsy need the opportunity for
independence and full inclusion in our society.