Finding out that your child has cerebral palsy can be devastating, but learning more about this condition can also provide hope. Educate yourself, by getting information about treatment options and how to help manage the condition. As you understand more about this condition, it will become clear that your child can still lead a productive and fulfilling life, even with disabilities.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common motor and movement disability. It is a neurological disorder that affects a child’s motor skills, movements, and muscle tone. Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage that develops while the baby is still in utero, during labor and delivery, or shortly after birth.
As an umbrella term, cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders and symptoms. While all the possible symptoms, disabilities, and complications are related, one child’s experience can be very different from another’s.
Cerebral palsy affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. There is currently no cure for it, but numerous treatments and therapies can help babies and children live quality lives that turn into successful adult lives.
Having cerebral palsy can lead to a number of other medical conditions, depending on the severity of the disorder. These include:
- Speech problems
- Learning disabilities
- Cognitive impairments
- Problems with hearing and vision
- Emotional and behavioral issues
- Spinal deformities
- Joint problems
Types of Cerebral Palsy
There are several different types of cerebral palsy. These are organized by symptoms and the areas of the body affected.
Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common type, affecting around 80% of all people with CP. People with spastic cerebral palsy have abnormally increased muscle tone, otherwise known as spasticity.
Common symptoms and characteristics of spastic CP include:
- Delayed milestones for sitting up, crawling, and walking
- Abnormal movement
- Movement inhibition
- Stiff, spastic muscles
- Difficulties controlling muscle movement
- Difficulties moving from one position to another
Spastic quadriplegia is the most severe form of spastic CP. This type of cerebral palsy can affect a child’s upper and lower limbs and body, typically making walking impossible. Many children with spastic quadriplegia will also experience chronic seizures, have difficulty with hearing and speech, as well as associated learning disabilities, so it’s essential to work with a healthcare team to figure out the best treatment options.
Spastic diplegia is not as severe as spastic quadriplegia, as it only affects the lower half of the body, and most children are still able to walk. However, because of tight hip and leg muscles, they often walk on their toes, have issues with balance and coordination, or require assistive devices. Other symptoms of spastic diplegia include delayed milestones, fatigue, seizures, “flexed knees,” and a crouched gait.
In the type of cerebral palsy known as spastic hemiplegia, one side of the body is affected, usually the arm more than the leg. The child can often adapt, and most are eventually able to walk.
Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy (also known as dystonic and athetoid) is the second most common form of cerebral palsy.
Symptoms of dyskinetic cerebral palsy include:
- Repetitive, twisting motions (dystonia)
- Slow, writhing movements (athetosis)
- Unpredictable, irregular movements (chorea)
- Awkward posture
- Movements can range from slow to rapid and can be accompanied by pain
- Sometimes the muscles of the face are affected causing difficulty swallowing or talking
Ataxic Cerebral Palsy
Ataxic cerebral palsy is the least common type of cerebral palsy. It is characterized by poor balance and coordination, tremors, and shaky movements that are difficult to control.
Mixed Cerebral Palsy
Mixed cerebral palsy is characterized by two or more types of symptoms and disabilities. Spastic-dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the most common type of mixed cerebral palsy. When children have mixed cerebral palsy, they may exhibit a combination of symptoms consistent with each type of the disorder they have.
What If I Notice Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy in My Child?
If you see unusual symptoms that seem like those caused by cerebral palsy, you should consult your child’s pediatrician right away. Even if you aren’t sure they are characteristic of cerebral palsy, should always take concerns about a child’s symptoms or development to your pediatrician. Early intervention is critical when helping children with cerebral palsy and many other conditions of early childhood.
What Causes Cerebral Palsy?
Brain damage is the underlying cause of CP, but there are many different ways that brain damage can occur. In some cases the exact cause of cerebral palsy and brain damage are unknown. One cause is when the baby’s brain fails to develop correctly or gets damaged during pregnancy. Other potential causes include maternal infections or medical conditions, interruption of blood flow to the developing brain, genetic conditions, and ingestion of toxins or drugs while pregnant.
Brain damage can also occur during childbirth. Infants born too early are at risk of developing the disorder. Premature infants run the risk of oxygen loss and a host of other medical issues that can lead to brain damage. And, while less common, an accident or serious infection during infancy or early childhood can also lead to brain damage and cerebral palsy.
Can Medical Negligence Cause Cerebral Palsy?
Medical negligence can cause of brain damage during childbirth. When a baby is deprived of oxygen during birth, the damage can be severe enough to cause cerebral palsy. Improper use of forceps and other tools during delivery can also cause damage to a baby’s delicate brain.
A doctor may also be at fault for failing to do something, like delaying a Cesarean section or failing to perform one altogether, not appropriately monitoring the health of the fetus, or failing to detect and treat infections or medical conditions of the mother. Parents have initiated lawsuits against doctors and hospitals when negligence was suspected in a cerebral palsy case.
Will My Child Be Intellectually Impaired?
A common myth about cerebral palsy is that it always causes intellectual impairment. 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 cognitive impairment due to the injury that caused CP. The degree of impairment depends upon individual circumstances. 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, cerebral palsy may not be diagnosed until the child reaches the age of walking and talking. If parents suspect a problem with motor development, coordination, or muscle strength, a pediatrician may make a diagnosis or recommend a specialist for more tests.
In other instances, especially if there are risk factors present, such as birth complications, there is a chance that the infant will receive a diagnosis in the first few months of life. Knowing there are risk factors means parents and doctors can closely monitor for early signs of CP.
When diagnosing cerebral palsy, doctors look for spastic movements, abnormal muscle movements, unusual development, and poor coordination. Based upon the child’s medical history and a physical examination, a doctor will be able to ascertain whether your child has cerebral palsy or not.
It’s important to remember that there is no single, easy test for cerebral palsy, and it can take time to get a proper diagnosis.
Can Cerebral Palsy Be Prevented?
In many cases of cerebral palsy there was no way to have prevented it. However, there are steps you can take while pregnant to help lower your risk of having a baby with cerebral palsy.
If you’re not pregnant yet, make sure you’re eating healthy, wholesome foods and that any pre-existing medical problems are under control. Take a daily multivitamin. Avoid drug use, smoking, and alcohol. If you’re already pregnant, it’s crucial to continue a healthy diet and take prenatal vitamins, as well as to avoid drinking alcohol, taking drugs and smoking. See your obstetrician for regular checkups.
Unfortunately, there is no predicting when an infant will suffer brain damage at the hands of a physician. Pulling forcefully on an infant, especially while using birth-assisting tools (forceps) can result brain damage. Sometimes an emergency C-section is indicated if an infant is not progressing as expected and becomes distressed. If the C-section isn’t ordered and carried out in time, the infant may suffer brain damage, which can lead to cerebral palsy.
If you already have an infant or toddler at home, be certain to “baby proof” your home to avoid 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 the quality of life for babies and children. Many interventions are started prior to or shortly after a diagnosis is given.
Medications can help control spastic movements, seizures, and even pain. Your physician will go over what kind of medicine is indicated for your child, depending on the symptoms.
The following medications are examples of what may be prescribed to help with cerebral palsy symptoms:
- Baclofen or other muscle relaxants
- Stool softeners/laxatives
- Sleep aids
Surgery may be a treatment option down the road for some children. Surgery for cerebral palsy is usually performed to help 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 can help people with cerebral palsy improve physical, mental, social, and learning deficits. If started early enough, many forms of therapy for cerebral palsy can reduce impairment and lessen the risk of developing other associated conditions. Therapy is usually combined with other treatments, such as medications, surgery, and assistive technology, to give the greatest benefits.
When a child has a diagnosis and parents and doctors agree on goals, a complete medical and family care team should work together to create an individualized therapy and treatment plan. It may include occupational and physical therapy, educational intervention, speech and language therapy, behavioral interentions, the use of assistive devices, and other types of therapy. Care may be provided by physical, occupational, feeding and speech therapists, physicians, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and special education teachers.
Common types of therapy used to help children with cerebral palsy include:
- Bowel program
Is Cerebral Palsy Fatal?
Many children diagnosed with cerebral palsy have the same life expectancy as anyone else. Prior to the mid-20th century, more children with cerebral palsy didn’t live to adulthood. While CP is not as much of a threat to a child’s life, it does generally require early intervention and good medical care, especially for those with severe forms of the disorder.
It’s important to note that some of the conditions associated with cerebral palsy can be life-threatening if not treated in time or correctly, such as breathing and swallowing difficulties (which can lead to pneumonia or malnutrition), seizures, chronic nutritional deficiencies, or life-threatening pressure sore infections.
What Conditions are Associated with Cerebral Palsy?
Associated conditions are disorders or illnesses that co-exist with another medical condition. For instance, a common secondary condition of cerebral palsy is the inability to chew and swallow effectively. Others include skin problems due to drooling, immobility, and digestive issues.
There are a number of conditions associated with cerebral palsy. Not every child with cerebral palsy will develop them, but generally, kids with CP have at least one co-existing medical disorder.
Examples of associated conditions include:
- Hearing deficits
- Vision impairment
- Cognitive disability
- Behavioral, emotional issues
- Feeding problems and nutritional deficiencies
- Gastric reflux
- Joint problems
- Sleep disorders
What is Life Like for Someone with Cerebral Palsy?
The prognosis for cerebral palsy depends on each individual, but it is possible for many to have a normal life like anyone else. Many children with cerebral palsy have average or above average intelligence, although those with more severe forms may have cognitive impairments that require educational assistance. Most kids can go to school with their peers but may need adaptive equipment to assist with communication, for hearing and vision, or for physical needs and mobility.
Some children have mild CP, as mentioned earlier, and aside from muscle spasms and tightness, they may be able to develop normally and participate as a typical child. Children with more severe forms of cerebral palsy may have many 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?
All of 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, including direct and indirect medical costs, is around $921,000, which doesn’t include out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, or emergency room visits. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with expenses, there are several options that you and/or your child 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. There is a process you need to follow to get your child qualified, including gathering pertinent medical information, labs and test results, social security number, birth certificate, etc. Those approved for cash assistance from the Social Security Administration (SSA), generally qualify for full medical insurance at little to no charge.
Additionally, you may qualify for free or reduced child care for special needs children 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 against the responsible party.
How Do I Know if My Child’s Disorder Was Caused by Medical Errors?
Medical errors occur when a doctor or another healthcare professional causes preventable harm to a patient by not providing an adequate standard of care.
The following are some of the common ways that medical errors occur to cause CP:
- A doctor failed to diagnose a maternal condition that led to brain injuries.
- A doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional failed to monitor, detect, and treat maternal or fetal distress.
- Tools to assist in the birth process were used improperly.
- The doctor failed to schedule emergency C-section when indicated by fetal distress.
- A doctor failed to detect and treat infant hypoxia, jaundice or infection, which led to brain damage.
Malpractice is a difficult legal area, however, because there must be enough proof in place to file a case, and there are also specific guidelines that must be met. For example, most states require that a doctor/patient relationship must have existed when the medical negligence took place.
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 legal suit 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 dedicated to helping people with cerebral palsy. Assistance from UCP comes from over 80 national affiliates and can include 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?
Currently, there is no cure for cerebral palsy. The disorder itself doesn’t get worse as the person ages; however, some of the associated medical conditions can sometimes increase in severity over time. Scientists and researchers are conducting ongoing studies in the hopes of one day finding 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 be proactive and get the best care for a child with CP as early as possible for the best outcome. Filing a lawsuit to get compensation and to hold a negligent healthcare worker responsible may also be important to help provide for the costs of that care.