Discovering that your child has cerebral palsy may be devastating, 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 lives.
As you understand more about cerebral palsy, including various treatment 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 impacts movement and motor skills. This is a neurological condition with brain damage as 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 often very different from another’s.
Cerebral palsy affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. There is no cure, 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 and what parts of the body it affects:
- 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:
Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Spastic cerebral palsy is most common. It affects about 80% of all people with CP. It causes abnormally increased muscle tone, known as spasticity.
Common symptoms and characteristics include:
- Delayed developmental milestones for sitting up, crawling, and walking.
- Abnormal movements.
- 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. It can affect 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 is not as severe as spastic quadriplegia. It affects only the lower half of the body, and some children are still able to walk. However, because of tight hip and leg muscles, they often struggle to walk, have issues with balance and coordination, and may 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. The 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. Symptoms include:
- Dystonia – repetitive, twisting motions.
- Athetosis – slow, writhing movements.
- Chorea – unpredictable, irregular movements.
- Poor posture.
- Painful movements.
- Difficulty swallowing or talking.
Ataxic Cerebral Palsy
Ataxic cerebral palsy is the least common type of CP. It causes poor balance and coordination, tremors, and shaky movements that are difficult to control.
Mixed Cerebral Palsy
Mixed cerebral palsy causes a mix of symptoms characteristic of the other types. Spastic-dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the most common type of mixed cerebral palsy.
What If I Notice Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy in My Child?
Consult your child’s pediatrician f you see unusual symptoms that seem like those of cerebral palsy. 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?
- When the baby’s brain fails to develop correctly in the womb.
- As a result of maternal infections or medical conditions.
- When something disrupts blood flow to the developing brain.
- Because of genetic conditions.
- From ingestion of toxins or drugs during pregnancy.
Brain damage can also occur during childbirth. Premature infants especially 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?
Yes, medical negligence can cause brain damage during childbirth. Actions that deprive a baby of oxygen during birth can lead to damage severe enough to cause cerebral palsy. Improper use tools and excessive force 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 could lead to damage. Not appropriately monitoring the health of the fetus, or failing to detect and treat infections or medical conditions of the mother can also be negligent.
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 a cognitive impairment due to the injury that caused CP. 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. The signs may not be obvious sooner. A pediatrician can make a diagnosis or recommend a specialist for more tests any time parents suspect a problem with motor development, coordination, or muscle strength.
If you have risk factors, such as birth complications, an infant may 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 or delayed development, and poor coordination.
It’s important to know that there 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 while pregnant to help lower your risk of having a baby with this condition.
If you’re trying to conceive, make sure you’re eating well 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, continue eating a healthy diet and take prenatal vitamins, as well as to avoid drinking alcohol, taking drugs and smoking. See your obstetrician for regular checkups and screenings for complications.
Unfortunately, there is no predicting when an infant will suffer brain damage at the hands of a physician. 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 prior to or shortly after a diagnosis is given.
Medications control spastic movements, seizures, and relieve pain. These are some examples of drugs that may be prescribed to help with cerebral palsy symptoms:
- Baclofen or other muscle relaxants
- Stool softeners/laxatives
- Sleep aids
Surgery is an important treatment option for many children with CP. Surgical procedures may be used to improve mobility or manage pain, for instance. Common procedures include tendon or muscle release, repair of hip dislocations, as well as scoliosis surgery.
Various types of therapy are helpful for people with cerebral palsy. Therapy can improve physical, mental, social, and learning deficits. If started early enough, 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 anyone else. Prior to the mid-20th century, more children with cerebral palsy did not 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.
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?
A number of conditions are associated with cerebral palsy. Usually, 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 the Prognosis for Cerebral Palsy?
The prognosis for cerebral palsy depends on each individual, but except in 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, 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?
The extensive 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. 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), generally qualify for full medical insurance at little to no charge.
You may also 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.
Incidents in which negligence may lead to 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, detect, 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 is a difficult legal area because there must be enough proof in place to file a case and 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 that helps 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?
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but it is also not a progressive condition. It will not get worse as a child ages. 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 in getting the best care for a child with CP as early as possible for the best outcomes. It can also be 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.