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What is cerebral palsy in children?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a brain (neurological) disorder that causes problems with normal motor function. It is a lifelong condition that affects how the brain and muscles communicate. CP affects body movement, muscle control, coordination, reflexes, posture, and balance. These problems are caused by damage to or abnormal development of certain brain areas. But many children with cerebral palsy have normal intelligence. CP can range in severity, but it doesn’t get worse over time. CP does not get better over time either. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.
What causes CP in a child?
CP occurs when there is abnormal development of or damage to areas of the brain that control motor function. This can happen before or during birth (congenital CP). Most of CP is congenital. Less commonly, CP can happen after birth. This is called acquired CP and usually happens from an infection or head injury.
In many cases, the exact cause of CP is not known. It may be the result of a problem such as:
- Lack of oxygen to the brain
- Genetic condition
- Bleeding in the brain
- Severe jaundice
- Head injury
Which children are at risk for CP?
A child is more at risk for CP because of any of the following:
- Preterm birth
- Inflammation of the placenta or amniotic fluid from an infection (chorioamnionitis)
- Blood clotting disorder
- Very low birthweight, especially under 3.3 pounds
- Infection with a virus
- Chemical or substance abuse during pregnancy
- Bleeding in the brain
- Complications of labor and delivery, in rare cases
What are the symptoms of CP in a child?
Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. A child may have muscle weakness, poor motor control, or shaking (spasticity) of the arms or legs. A child may also have muscle stiffness in the form of stiff legs or clenched fists.
The symptoms depend on what type of CP a child has. The types and symptoms include:
- Spastic diplegia. Di means 2. This is spasticity of the legs in most cases, but sometimes the arms. Diplegia is also called paraplegia.
- Spastic quadriplegia. This is also called tetraplegia. Quad and tetra mean 4. This is spasticity of all arms and legs.
- Spastic hemiplegia. Hemi means half. This is spasticity that affects 1 side of the body, such as the right arm and right leg.
- Spastic double hemiplegia. This is spasticity on both sides of the body. The amount of spasticity is different on each side.
- Athetoid CP. This is also called dyskinetic CP. This is movement that can’t be controlled (involuntary). The movement is usually twisting and rigid.
- Ataxic CP. This affects balance, leading to unsteady walking. It also affects fine motor coordination. This makes it hard to do things such as writing.
Babies with CP are often slow to reach developmental motor milestones. These may include learning to roll over, sit, crawl, or walk. They may also keep certain reflexes that normally disappear in early infancy.
Children with CP may have additional problems. But these are not signs or symptoms of CP. CP refers only to the motor dysfunction. The additional problems may include:
- Vision, hearing, or speech problems
- Learning disabilities and behavior problems
- Intellectual disability
- Respiratory problems
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Bone problems including scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine
The symptoms of CP can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is CP diagnosed in a child?
A diagnosis of CP is not usually made until a child is at least 6 to 12 months old. This is when a child should be reaching developmental milestones. These include sitting, standing, and walking, plus hand and head control. The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam.
Your child may also have tests, such as:
- Neurological exam. This checks reflexes and brain and motor function.
- MRI. This imaging test uses large magnets and a computer to make detailed images of organs and tissues in the body. This imaging test is often used to assess CP.
- Feeding studies. These tests use X-rays or videos to see what happens from the time food enters your child’s mouth until after your child swallows.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG). This checks electrical activity in the brain.
- Gait lab analysis. This looks at your child’s walking pattern.
- CT scan. This test uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than standard X-rays.
- Genetic studies. These tests look for health conditions that can run in families.
- Metabolic tests. These tests check for the lack of a specific enzymes that are needed to maintain the normal function of the body.
How is cerebral palsy treated in a child?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. CP is a lifelong condition that has no cure. Because of this, your child’s healthcare providers will work to:
- Prevent or lessen defects and problems
- Make the most of a child's abilities
A child is treated by a healthcare team that may include:
- Pediatrician or family doctor. This is a child’s primary healthcare provider.
- Orthopedic surgeon. This is a surgeon who treats muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones.
- Neurologist. This is a doctor who treats conditions of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
- Neurosurgeon. This is a surgeon who treats the brain and spinal cord.
- Ophthalmologist. This is a doctor who treats eye problems.
- Dentist. This is a doctor who treats mouth and teeth problems.
- Nurse. This is a healthcare provider who often works with other healthcare providers.
- Physiatrist. This is a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
- Orthotist. This is a professional who makes braces and splints.
- Rehabilitation team. These include physical, occupational, speech, and audiology therapists.
Management of CP may include:
- Positioning aids to help a child sit, lie down, or stand
- Braces and splints to prevent deformity and to give support or protection
- Medicines given by mouth or injection, to help decrease spasticity in the muscles
- Surgery to treat orthopedic problems such as curvature in the back, hip dislocation, ankle and foot deformities, and contracted muscles
- Surgery to treat spasticity
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
What are the possible complications of CP in a child?
Possible complications vary widely from child to child. Treatment for complications will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how serious the condition is. Your child’s healthcare provider will discuss treatment choices with you.
How can I help prevent CP in my child?
Because doctors don’t know fully what causes congenital CP, little can be done to prevent it. CP related to gene problems can’t be prevented. But you can do certain things that might help reduce the risk:
- Be as healthy as possible before and during pregnancy. Get early and regular prenatal care.
- Get vaccinated for certain diseases that can harm a developing baby.
After birth, acquired CP is often caused by an infection or injury. Some of these cases can be prevented by helping keep your baby healthy and safe:
- Keep your baby’s vaccines up to date
- Take steps to prevent injuries by always using a car seat, babyproofing your living areas, and by always watching your young child when near water
How can I help my child live with CP?
CP is a lifelong condition that has no cure. It can range in severity, but it doesn’t get worse over time. The full extent of CP is usually not fully known right after birth. It can become clearer as a child grows and develops. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.
Your child’s healthcare providers will work to prevent deformities or keep them to a minimum. They will also work to help your child make the most of his or her capabilities. You can help your child strengthen his or her self-esteem and be as independent as possible. Physical and occupational rehabilitation, plus extra support in school, can help a child function as well as possible.
When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
- Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
- New symptoms
Key points about cerebral palsy in children
- Cerebral palsy (CP) is a brain (neurological) disorder that causes problems with normal motor function. It affects body movement, muscle control, coordination, reflexes, posture, and balance.
- In many cases, the exact cause of CP is not known. Most cases happen before or during birth (congenital CP). CP that occurs after birth usually happens from an infection or head injury.
- CP can range in severity, but it doesn’t get worse over time. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.
- Symptoms can vary in each child and depend on the severity of CP. Many children with CP have normal intelligence. A child may have muscle weakness, poor motor control, or shaking (spasticity) of the arms or legs. A child may also have stiff legs or clenched fists.
- CP is a lifelong condition that has no cure. A child is treated by a healthcare team. Treatment may include rehab, positioning aids, braces, splints, medicines, or surgery.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Article Last Updated: July 16, 2019
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