What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a permanent disorder of posture and movement resulting from brain damage occurring in the baby or young child.

Cerebral palsy is the name given to a group of conditions that occur before, during, or in the first two years after birth. These conditions result from damage to the brain. The damage affects the messages being both received by and sent from the brain, and the way in which the brain interprets the information it receives. Among the functions that cerebral palsy can affect are movement, sensation, perception, cognition, communication, and eating and drinking. In some children, all of these functions are affected, but other children may only have one of these problems.

What causes it?

Cerebral palsy can be caused by many things, which result in either a bleed in the brain (haemorrhage) or lack of oxygen to the brain (anoxia). These include: prematurity, infections (such as meningitis), traumatic birth, problems in utero (in the womb), head injuries (including non-accidental injuries), near-drowning and strokes.

Is there a cure?

No, because the damage to the brain is irreparable but therapy can encourage the brain to develop alternative pathways.

While there is no cure, therapy can help children and their families manage the problems that cerebral palsy presents. This can change the clinical presentation (symptoms) of the condition.

Is it progressive?

The damage to the brain doesn't change, but the child may have increasing difficulties as they grow and mature. Limited movement can result in contractures and deformities, or the increased demands on children as they get older can make problems more obvious and widen the gap between them and their peer group.

Is it similar to a stroke?

A stroke, in a baby or young child, can be one of the causes of cerebral palsy. A stroke in an adult or older child results in damage to the brain after it has learned how to control movements and interact with the environment. Therapy after each is, therefore, very different as therapy for an adult stroke patient involves relearning skills, but the child with cerebral palsy has no prior experience of normal movement on which to build.

Can you tell, from scans of the brain, how the child will be affected?

Yes and no. As yet, the medical profession cannot make an accurate prognosis from a scan. However, a scan can give indications of potential problems.

Does it cause mental disabilities?

Not necessarily. Cerebral palsy can cause learning difficulties by impairing intellectual development, but problems affecting perception can also lead to learning difficulties. Difficulties controlling movement can also limit experience and therefore the opportunity to learn. Other children who have cerebral palsy can have normal and age appropriate learning skills.

Is spastic another word for cerebral palsy?

No, spastic is the old-fashioned word for cerebral palsy, but the word 'spasticity' is used conventionally to describe the increase in postural tone (hypertonus) seen in some children with cerebral palsy. Tone is the term used to describe the relative stiffness/floppiness of muscles. Tone must be high enough to allow you to resist gravity, but low enough to allow you to move. Other types of tone seen in cerebral palsy are: athetosis, ataxia and hypotonus.

Is it terminal?

No, the damage to the brain doesn't change but some of the associated problems that some children present with can lead to a shortened life expectancy. This is only in a minority of children.

Does cerebral palsy just affect the way you move?

No, there are other difficulties associated with cerebral palsy, such as perceptual problems, learning difficulties, sensory problems (vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste), communication, and eating, drinking and breathing. Able-bodied children move around to explore their environment, using their hands and mouth to explore and experience things that prepare them for later life. Children with cerebral palsy cannot always explore their environment, and the injuries to the brain can arrest certain areas of development. Please remember that these difficulties do not necessarily affect every child.

Does it lead to other complications?

Yes, other complications may occur and can include the digestive system (reflux and constipation), the urinary system (bladder infections, kidney infections), the skin (pressure areas), the musculo-skeletal system (dislocations and deformities), respiratory complications, and the sensory system (see above). Please remember that these difficulties do not necessarily affect every child.

Is every child with cerebral palsy the same?

No, just like able-bodied children, every child with cerebral palsy is different, with their own, unique set of abilities and problems.