Cerebral Palsy 101

One of the topics we are most often asked about is cerebral palsy, so we’re presenting “Cerebral Palsy 101” as an overview of the disorder. This neurological condition is the most common motor disability in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “Cerebral” means related to the brain, and palsy refers to difficulty with muscle movement. Cerebral palsy, or CP, is caused by damage to the brain as it develops, or some abnormality in the developing brain, and results in problems with muscle control.

Approximately 85%-90% of people with CP are born with the disorder. The mechanism or mechanisms that cause this to happen are often unclear. Another 10%-15% develop CP as the result of a birth injury, often from oxygen deprivation during the birth process. Cerebral palsy is not genetic, and, to many people's surprise, it is not a degenerative disease, meaning it does not get worse over time. In fact, with physical therapy, speech therapy, and other treatment, patients with CP may show improvement in their condition.

Early Signs of Cerebral Palsy

It may not be immediately apparent when a child is born that he or she has cerebral palsy. Instead, parents may come to feel over the course of weeks or months that there is "something wrong." Here are some signs to look for early in a child's development that may suggest cerebral palsy.

From birth to six months, the baby may feel either stiff or floppy. He may have difficulty holding his head up, especially when you pick him up from lying on his back. When you are cradling him in your arms, he may overextend his back and neck such that it feels as if he is pushing away from you. Also, when you pick the baby up, his legs may seem stiff and one may cross over the other.

At six months or older, you might observe that your baby is not doing some things typical of children of this age. For instance, he is not rolling over front to back or back to front, and cannot bring his hands together or bring one hand to his mouth. If he reaches out with one hand, the other hand might be kept in a tight fist.

At ten months of age and older, your baby might not be crawling, or might be crawling in a lopsided fashion, perhaps seeming to drag one side of his body. He may also scoot on his behind, but not crawl on all fours as most babies do at this age.

If you notice any of these signs, don't panic, but do mention them to your pediatrician, who may recommend further observation or testing. If your child does have cerebral palsy, early intervention and therapy can improve his condition and quality of life.

What to Expect With Cerebral Palsy

The course of each case of cerebral palsy is different. A person with a very mild case of CP might walk with an awkward gait or slightly slurred speech, but may otherwise function well without assistance. Someone with severe CP might be unable to walk or speak and may need high levels of care.

Because CP typically affects speech, some people believe that CP always involves intellectual disabilities, but this is not true. While some people with CP do have intellectual disability, many also have normal or above-average intelligence. Individuals with CP may also have seizure disorders, vision or hearing deficits, scoliosis (curvature of the spine) or joint problems.

Parents who have just been told their child has CP often ask us what the diagnosis means for their child's life expectancy. As mentioned above, CP is not a degenerative disease, and it does not, in and of itself, lead to an early death. That said, CP may be linked with complications that increase the risk of a shortened lifespan. Difficulty in feeding, for example, may lead to malnourishment and vulnerability to disease. Issues with motor control can lead to an increased risk of falls and other accidents. Unsurprisingly, the risk of complications is higher in those who have a more severe form of cerebral palsy.

The good news is that many children with cerebral palsy experience little pain from the condition early in life. Later on, however, they may begin to develop arthritis and pain in the joints, hips, knees, and back. Early physical therapy may help to minimize these outcomes.

If you have more questions about cerebral palsy, including whether your child may have been injured at birth, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.

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