Discovering that your child has cerebral palsy is overwhelming, but there is hope. Learn more about this condition for practical solutions for your child and to find out that children with this condition can live long, healthy, and satisfying lives.
As you understand more about cerebral palsy, including the many treatment and therapy options, it will become clear that your child can still lead a productive and fulfilling life, even with permanent disabilities.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common disability of childhood that affects movement, muscles, and motor skills. It is a neurological condition. Brain damage is the underlying cause. The damage may occur while the baby is still in utero, during labor and delivery, or shortly after birth.
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term, which means it refers to a group of disorders and symptoms. While all the possible symptoms, disabilities, and complications are related, one child’s experience is unique and different from that of another.
Cerebral palsy affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. There is no cure, but treatments and therapies can help babies and children live quality lives and grow into successful adults.
Having cerebral palsy can trigger other medical conditions depending on the severity of the disorder and the parts of the body it affects:
- Speech problems
- Learning disabilities
- Cognitive impairments
- Problems with hearing and vision
- Emotional and behavioral challenges
- Spinal deformities
- Joint problems
Types of Cerebral Palsy
There are a four types of cerebral palsy:
Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Spastic cerebral palsy is most common. It affects more than three-quarters of all people with CP. It causes increased muscle tone, known as spasticity.
Typical symptoms include:
- Delayed developmental milestones for sitting up, crawling, and walking.
- Abnormal movements.
- Movement inhibition.
- Stiff and spastic muscles.
- Difficulties controlling muscle movement.
- Difficulties moving from one position to another.
Spastic quadriplegia is the most severe form. It impacts a child’s upper and lower limbs and body, severely restricting mobility. Many children with spastic quadriplegia will also experience chronic seizures, have difficulty with hearing and speech, as well as associated learning disabilities.
Spastic diplegia only affects the lower half of the body, and some children can still walk. However, because of tight hip and leg muscles, walking may be impaired and cause issues with balance and coordination. These children often need assistive devices for mobility. Other symptoms include delayed milestones, fatigue, seizures, “flexed knees,” and a crouched gait.
Spastic hemiplegia affects one side of the body only, usually the arm more than the leg. A child can often adapt, and most are able to walk.
Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy (also known as dystonic and athetoid) is the second most common type of CP. Symptoms include:
- Dystonia – repetitive, twisting motions.
- Athetosis – writhing movements.
- Chorea – unpredictable movements.
- Poor posture.
- Painful movements.
- Difficulty swallowing or talking.
Ataxic Cerebral Palsy
Ataxic cerebral palsy is the least common type. It causes poor balance, limited coordination, tremors, and shaky movements that are difficult to control.
Mixed Cerebral Palsy
Mixed cerebral palsy causes a mix of symptoms characteristic of two or three of the other types. Spastic-dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the most common type of mixed CP.
What If I Notice Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy in My Child?
Consult your child’s pediatrician if you see unusual symptoms. Even if you aren’t sure they are caused by cerebral palsy, always take your concerns about a child’s symptoms or development to a pediatrician. Early intervention is critical when helping children with cerebral palsy.
What Causes Cerebral Palsy?
Brain damage is the cause of CP, but there are many potential ways that brain damage can occur. In some cases the exact cause of cerebral palsy and brain damage can’t be determined. Some possible causes are:
- Poor brain development in the womb.
- Maternal infections or medical conditions.
- Disruption of blood flow to the developing brain.
- Genetic conditions.
- Ingestion of toxins or drugs during pregnancy.
A difficult childbirth or a mistake made by a medical professional during delivery can also cause brain damage. Premature babies are at particular risk because they may not get enough oxygen or have other medical problems that cause brain damage.
In rare cases an accident that causes brain damage or a severe infection can trigger cerebral palsy in an infant, a toddler, or even a young child.
Can Medical Negligence Cause Cerebral Palsy?
Yes, medical negligence can cause brain damage during pregnancy or childbirth. Mistakes that deprive a baby of oxygen during birth, for instance, can lead to damage severe enough to cause cerebral palsy. Improper use of medical tools can also cause physical damage to a baby’s brain.
A doctor may also be at fault for failing to act. A delayed decision to perform a Cesarean section or failing to perform one altogether, for instance, could lead to damage. Not appropriately monitoring the health of the fetus, or failing to detect and treat infections or medical conditions of a woman during preganncy can also be negligent.
Will My Child Be Intellectually Impaired?
Cerebral palsy not necessarily cause intellectual impairment. In fact, most children with CP have average or above average intelligence. Many adults living with cerebral palsy are doctors, attorneys, teachers, and more.
Some children, however, will develop a cognitive impairment due to the brain injury. Healthcare professionals will be able to work with your child to determine what level of cognitive disability, if any, exists.
How is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?
In mild cases, doctors may not diagnose cerebral palsy until the child reaches the age of walking and talking. Signs may not be obvious any earlier. A pediatrician can make a diagnosis or recommend a specialist for more tests any time parents suspect a problem with motor development, coordination, or muscles.
If there are factors that put your child at risk for CP, such as birth complications, your child may get a diagnosis in the first few months of life. With known risk factors, parents and doctors can closely monitor for early signs of CP.
When diagnosing cerebral palsy, doctors look for spastic movements, abnormal muscle movements, delayed development, and poor coordination.
No single, easy test for cerebral palsy exists. It can take time and multiple tests and observations to get an accurate diagnosis and to rule out other conditions.
Can Cerebral Palsy Be Prevented?
In many cases there is no way cerebral palsy can be prevented. But there are always steps you can take to help lower your risk of having a baby with this condition:
- If you’re trying to conceive, eat well and have any pre-existing medical problems under control. Take a daily multivitamin. Avoid drug use, smoking, and alcohol.
- If you’re already pregnant, continue with these healthy habits and also take recommended pre-natal vitamins.
- See your obstetrician for regular checkups throughout pregnancy.
- Get screened for potential complications.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to predict when an infant will suffer brain damage due to physician mistakes. The best you can do as a parent is to choose your doctors carefully and advocate for your own healthcare and that of your child.
If you already have an infant or toddler at home, baby proof rooms to prevent falls or accidents that can lead to brain injury. This includes making sure cleaning supplies and other toxic substances are out of reach. Always make sure your infant or child is correctly seated and properly restrained in a moving vehicle.
What Are the Treatment Options for Cerebral Palsy?
Currently, there is no cure for cerebral palsy, but a variety of treatment options can improve symptoms and quality of life for babies and children. Many interventions can be started immediately after a diagnosis is given.
Medications help control spastic movements, seizures, and relieve pain. Some examples of drugs that may be prescribed to help with cerebral palsy symptoms include:
- Baclofen or other muscle relaxants
- Stool softeners/laxatives
- Sleep aids
Surgery is an important part of treatment for many children with CP. Surgical procedures may be used to improve mobility or manage pain. Common procedures include tendon or muscle release, repair of hip dislocations, as well as scoliosis surgery.
Various types of therapy help children and babies with cerebral palsy. Therapy can improve physical, mental, social, and learning deficits. If started early, therapy for cerebral palsy can reduce impairment and lessen the risk of developing other associated conditions.
Common types of therapy used to help children with cerebral palsy include:
- Horse and animal
- Bowel program
Is Cerebral Palsy Fatal?
Many children diagnosed with cerebral palsy have the same life expectancy as other kids. Prior to the mid-20th century, life expectancy for CP was shorter, but better detection and therapies have improved many problematic health conditions for these children.
While CP does not shorten life expectancy, it does generally require early intervention and good medical care, especially for those with severe forms of the disorder.
Some of the conditions associated with cerebral palsy can be life-threatening if not treated adequately. These include breathing and swallowing difficulties (which can lead to pneumonia or malnutrition), seizures, chronic nutritional deficiencies, or life-threatening pressure infections.
What Conditions are Associated with Cerebral Palsy?
A number of conditions are associated with cerebral palsy. Many kids with CP have at least one co-existing medical disorder.
Examples of associated conditions are:
- Hearing deficits
- Vision impairment
- Cognitive disability
- Behavioral, emotional issues
- Feeding problems and nutritional deficiencies
- Gastric reflux
- Joint problems
- Sleep disorders
What is the Prognosis for Cerebral Palsy?
The prognosis for cerebral palsy depends on each individual, but excepting severe cases it is possible for most to have a normal life like anyone else. Many children with cerebral palsy have average or above average intelligence, and are mobile with assistance.
Most kids can go to school with their peers but may need adaptive equipment to assist with communication, hearing or vision, or for physical needs and mobility.
Some children have mild CP, and aside from muscle spasms and tightness, they may be able to participate in school and other activities to the same degree as any other child.
Children with more severe forms of cerebral palsy may have multiple associated conditions. These conditions are typically what cause ongoing medical problems that can affect quality of life and longevity, particularly without early and appropriate intervention.
What Do I Do If I Can’t Afford My Child’s Care?
The care required for a child with special needs can be costly. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the average cost to raise a child with cerebral palsy is $921,000. This doesn’t include out-of-pocket expenses or lost wages. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with expenses, there are several options you may qualify for.
For example, kids with motor dysfunctions may qualify for cash assistance from the government. This falls under section 111.000 of the Social Security disability insurance program. Those approved for cash assistance from the Social Security Administration (SSA), usually also qualify for full medical insurance at little to no charge.
You may also qualify for free or reduced child care under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and educational assistance under The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004.
Last, but not least, if your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical negligence, you have the option to file for compensation from the responsible party.
How Do I Know if My Child’s Disorder Was Caused by Medical Negligence?
Medical negligence occurs when a doctor or another healthcare professional causes preventable harm to a patient by not providing an adequate standard of care.
Incidents in which negligence may have caused CP include but are not limited to:
- A doctor failing to diagnose a maternal condition that led to brain injuries.
- A doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional failing to monitor and treat maternal or fetal distress.
- Tools to assist in the birth process being used improperly.
- The doctor failing to schedule emergency C-section when indicated by fetal distress.
- A doctor failing to detect and treat infant hypoxia, jaundice or infection, leading to brain damage.
Malpractice cases are complicated. There has to be enough evidence just to start a case and specific guidelines set by state laws have to be met first.
Additionally, you’ll need to demonstrate that injuries did indeed come from the negligence of a healthcare provider. However, if the case is valid, a successful lawsuit can help you take care of your child for life.
What is the United Cerebral Palsy?
United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) is a non-profit organization that helps people with cerebral palsy. Assistance from UCP comes from over 80 national affiliates and includes help with transportation, housing, recreational activities, traveling, health awareness, assistive technologies, advocacy in education, and much more.
According to the official UCP site, “UCP educates, advocates and provides support services to ensure a life without limits for people with a spectrum of disabilities. UCP works to advance the independence, productivity and full citizenship of people with disabilities through an affiliate network that has helped millions.”
Is There a Cure For Cerebral Palsy?
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but it is also not a progressive condition. Scientists and researchers are conducting ongoing studies to try to find a cure and better ways to prevent CP. Promising studies include those involving stem cells, which may be used to replacing damaged cells with healthy ones in the brain.
While there is no cure for cerebral palsy, parents can give their child the best possible start with good, early care. It is also important to file a lawsuit to get compensation and to hold a negligent healthcare worker responsible. A successful case will help provide for the costs of a child’s care.