Cerebral palsy (SER-uh-brul PAWL-zee) is a group of conditions characterized by a loss or limitation of movement or other nerve functions caused by brain injuries during fetal development or near the time of birth.
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Marsha could not help comparing her baby to the others at the park. At ten months old, Sam could hardly sit up on his own, but most of the other babies Sam's age were crawling and pulling up to a standing position. Marsha also noticed that Sam often felt stiff when she picked him up. When Marsha took Sam to the doctor and described his symptoms, the doctor suspected that Sam had a form of cerebral palsy. Sam's doctor explained that cerebral palsy occurs when parts of the brain that control movement are injured or don't develop properly during pregnancy.
What Is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is not a single condition but instead identifies a group of movement disorders caused by a brain injury. Before birth or shortly after birth, developing brain tissue may be injured by trauma * or by diseases such as meningitis * or encephalitis * . Brain damage may also result from severe dehydration * , lack of oxygen, or a variety of other problems. In most cases, however, the cause of cerebral palsy is unknown.
In the United States, cerebral palsy occurs at a rate of about 5 cases per 2,000 births, and the rate is even higher in premature infants (about 5 percent of premature babies have cerebral palsy). Each year, 10,000 new cases of cerebral palsy are diagnosed in the United States.
* trauma (TRAW-muh), in the broadest sense, refers to a wound or injury, whether psy-chological or physical. It occurs when a person experiences a sudden or violent injury (physical trauma) or encounters a situa-tion that involves intense fear and loss of control (psychologi-cal trauma).
* meningitis (men-in-JY-tis) is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord.
* encephalitis (en-sef-uh-LY-tis) is an inflammation of the brain that can range from mild to extremely serious. It is usually caused by one of many viruses.
* dehydration (dee-hy-DRAY-shun) is loss of fluid from the body.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms
of Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy is divided into different types based on the symptoms that a person experiences. Spastic (SPAS-tik) syndromes are the most common form of cerebral palsy and account for about 70 percent of cases. People with spastic syndromes move in a stiff or jerky way. Spastic movements may affect one limb, one side of the body, both legs, or both arms and legs, and the affected limbs are usually underdeveloped and have rigid muscles. In mild cases, the symptoms may only show during certain activities such as running. People with spastic syndromes also may experience seizures * , partial or fill loss of movement (paralysis), sensory abnormalities, and speech, hearing, and vision problems. About 20 percent of people with cerebral palsy experience slow, writhing, involuntary musde movements in the arms and legs. The symptoms usually increase with stress and disappear when the person is sleeping. Others (about 10 percent of people with cerebral palsy) have weakness, uncoordinated movements, and shaking; a person with this type of cerebral palsy has difficulty with rapid and fine movements. Some people with cerebral palsy experience a mixture of all of these symptoms.
How Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed and Treated?
Cerebral palsy is sometimes difficult to diagnose in infants. Clear diagnosis may be delayed until a child is about 2 years old. Children at risk for developing cerebral palsy, such as children who are born with very low birth weights (less than 2 pounds), should be watched closely.
Treatment for cerebral palsy is tailored to each individual's specific symptoms. Doctors and therapists work together to set up a treatment program to help the patient deal with the challenges of day-to-day living, such as getting dressed, grooming, and eating. Physical therapy can help people with cerebral palsy build strength and improve function in their limbs. Special equipment, such as leg braces, walkers, and wheelchairs, can provide mobility. Muscle relaxants may be used to reduce musde tone and antiseizure medications may control seizures. Glasses and hearing aids may improve sight and hearing, and special education may help a child with cerebral palsy cope with learning problems.
Living with Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy is a lifelong disorder. The extent of disability caused by cerebral palsy varies with the severity of the symptoms. Some people have mild forms that are barely noticeable; for example, a child might just walk and run with a limp. Other people have more severe symptoms; they might require a wheelchair to get around and have severe mental retardation. While long-term care such as institutionalization may be required in severe cases, many people with cerebral palsy lead full and happy lives. Most children with cerebral palsy do many of the things their friends do, such as go to school, go to summer camp, read, listen to music, talk on the phone, and play sports.
* seizures (SEE-zhurz) are sudden episodes of involuntary (uncon-trollable) body movements, changes in behavior or sensa-tions, or loss of consciousness that result from bursts of abnor-mal electrical energy in the brain.
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United Cerebral Palsy, 1660 L Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC