Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella-like term used to describe a group of chronic disorders impairing control of movement that appear in the first few years of life and generally do not worsen over time. The disorders are caused by faulty development of or damage to motor areas in the brain that disrupts the brain’s ability to control movement and posture.

Symptoms of cerebral palsy include difficulty with fine motor tasks (such as writing or using scissors), difficulty maintaining balance or walking, involuntary movements. The symptoms differ from person to person and may change over time. Some people with cerebral palsy are also affected by other medical disorders, including seizures or mental impairment, but cerebral palsy does not always cause profound handicap. Early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before 3 years of age. Infants with cerebral palsy are frequently slow to reach developmental milestones such as learning to roll over, sit, crawl, smile, or walk. Cerebral palsy may be congenital or acquired after birth. Several of the causes of cerebral palsy that have been identified through research are preventable or treatable: head injury, jaundice, Rh incompatibility, and rubella (German measles). Doctors diagnose cerebral palsy by testing motor skills and reflexes, looking into medical history, and employing a variety of specialized tests. Although its symptoms may change over time, cerebral palsy by definition is not progressive, so if a patient shows increased impairment, the problem may be something other than cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy may be classified by the type of movement problem (such as spastic or athetoid cerebral palsy) or by the body parts involved (hemiplegia, diplegia, and quadriplegia). Spasticity refers to the inability of a muscle to relax, while athetosis refers to an inability to control the movement of a muscle. Infants who at first are hypotonic wherein they are very floppy may later develop spasticity. Hemiplegia is cerebral palsy that involves one arm and one leg on the same side of the body, whereas with diplegia the primary involvement is both legs. Quadriplegia refers to a pattern involving all four extremities as well as trunk and neck muscles. Another frequently used classification is ataxia, which refers to balance and coordination problems. The motor disability of a child with CP varies greatly from one child to another; thus generalizations about children with cerebral palsy can only have meaning within the context of the subgroups described above. For this reason, subgroups will be used in this book whenever treatment and outcome expectations are discussed. Most professionals who care for children with cerebral palsy understand these diagnoses and use them to communicate about a child’s condition.

As noted above, a useful method for making subdivisions is determined by which parts of the body are involved. Although almost all children with cerebral palsy can be classified as having hemiplegia, diplegia, or quadriplegia, there are significant overlaps which have led to the use of additional terms, some of which are very confusing. To avoid confusion, most of the discussion in his book will be limited to the use of these three terms. Occasionally such terms as paraplegia, double hemiplegia, triplegia, and pentaplegia may occasionally be encountered by the reader; these classifications are also based on the parts of the body involved. The dominant type of movement or muscle coordination problem is the other method by which children are subdivided and classified to assist in communicating about the problems of cerebral palsy. The component which seems to be causing the most problem is often used as the categorizing term. For example, the child with spastic diplegia has mostly spastic muscle problems, and most of the involvement is in the legs, but the child may also have a smaller component of athetosis and balance problems. The child with athetoid quadriplegia, on the other hand, would have involvement of both arms and legs, primarily with athetoid muscle problems, but such a child often has some ataxia and spasticity as well. Generally a child with quadriplegia is a child who is not walking independently. The reader may be familiar with other terms used to define specific problems of movement or muscle function terms such as: dystonia, tremor, ballismus, and rigidity. The words severe, moderate, and mild are also often used in combination with both anatomic and motor function classification terms (severe spastic diplegia, for example), but these qualifying words do not have any specific meaning. They are subjective words and their meaning varies depending on the person who is using them.

We do not know the cause of most cases of cerebral palsy. That is, we are unable to determine what caused cerebral palsy in most children who have congenital CP. We do know that the child who is at highest risk for developing CP is the premature, very small baby who does not cry in the first five minutes after delivery, who needs to be on a ventilator for over four weeks, and who has bleeding in his brain. Babies who have congenital malformations in systems such as the heart, kidneys, or spine are also more likely to develop CP, probably because they also have malformations in the brain. Seizures in a newborn also increase the risk of CP. There is no combination of factors which always results in an abnormally functioning individual. That is, even the small premature infant has a better than 90 percent chance of not having cerebral palsy. There are a surprising number of babies who have very stormy courses in the newborn period and go on to do very well. In contrast, some infants who have rather benign beginnings are eventually found to have severe mental retardation or learning disabilities.

There is no standard therapy that works for all patients. Drugs can be used to control seizures and muscle spasms, special braces can compensate for muscle imbalance. Surgery, mechanical aids to help overcome impairments, counseling for emotional and psychological needs, and physical, occupational, speech, and behavioral therapy may be employed.

At this time, cerebral palsy cannot be cured, but due to medical research, many patients can enjoy near-normal lives if their neurological problems are properly managed.

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