Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition that affects posture and movement as a result of brain damage which has occurred during pregnancy, around the time of birth or within the first two years after birth. 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. Cerebral palsy can also affect sensation, perception, cognition, communication, and eating and drinking. Put simply, it can make ordinary activities that most of us take for granted difficult to do. These can include walking, talking, dressing and fine motor skills such as writing and doing buttons. In some children, all of these functions are affected, but other children may only have one of these difficulties.
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). Examples of these are: infections before and after birth , traumatic birth, problems in utero (in the womb), abnormal brain development, head injury.
Who can be affected by cerebral palsy? In the UK cerebral palsy affects about 1 in every 400 children. Cerebral palsy can affect people from all social backgrounds and ethnic groups.
What can increase the chances of cerebral palsy? The following factors can increase the baby’s risk of having cerebral palsy:
A combination of the above factors (such as being a twin with low birth weight) can further increase the risk of cerebral palsy.
Is there a cure? There is no cure for cerebral palsy, 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 working towards the child’s full potential within their daily lives.
What does cerebral palsy look like? No two people will be affected by their cerebral palsy in the same way. It is important to ensure treatments and therapy are tailored to the child’s needs. For more information please see here.
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 high tone (hypertonus) seen in some children with cerebral palsy. Tone is the term used to describe the relative stiffness/floppiness of muscles. Other types of tone seen in cerebral palsy are: athetosis, ataxia and hypotonus.
Is it similar to a stroke in adults? A stroke (bleed or blockage to the brain), in a baby or toddler, can be one of the causes of cerebral palsy. It happens before the brain has had the chance to fully develop. A stroke in an adult or older child happens when the brain has nearly/fully developed and therefore after the person has learned how to control movements and interact with the environment. Therapy therefore, is very different for an adult stroke patient as it involves relearning skills. The baby or toddler with cerebral palsy has no/limited prior experience of typical movement and therapy, therefore, focuses on learning new skills.
Can you tell, from scans of the brain, how the child will be affected? As yet it is difficult to make an accurate prognosis from a scan. However, a scan can give indications of potential problems.
Does it cause mental disabilities? Not necessarily. Children with cerebral palsy can have learning difficulties caused directly by the brain damage or as a result of additional difficulties such as altered perception. Difficulties controlling movement and interacting with the environment can limit the opportunity to learn. However, children who have cerebral palsy can also have age appropriate learning skills.
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. Please remember that these difficulties do not necessarily affect every child.
Does it lead to other complications? 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 it progressive? The damage to the brain is not progressive, but the child may have increasing difficulties as they grow and mature. Limited movement can result in contractures (shortening) of muscles and deformities of joints/bones. This means that certain functional activities can become more difficult. Difficulties secondary to cerebral palsy may have an impact on health and well-being, such as pain, epilepsy, constipation.
Is it life-limiting? Cerebral palsy is not life limiting as the initial damage to the brain doesn’t change. However, 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.
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 difficulties.