Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect a child’s ability to coordinate and control body movements. Muscles become weak and floppy, or stiff and rigid. This disorder appears during the first few years of life.
In the United States, cerebral palsy occurs in 2 to 4 out of every 1,000 births. Babies born prematurely or at low birth weights are at higher risk for developing the disorder. It is usually caused by brain injuries that occur in the early course of development.
Children with cerebral palsy exhibit a variety of symptoms, which may range from mild to severe. They may include a lack of muscle coordination when performing voluntary movements (ataxia), stiff muscles and exaggerated reflexes (spasticity), asymmetrical walking gait, with one foot or leg dragging, variations in muscle tone, from too stiff to too floppy, excessive drooling or difficulties swallowing, sucking or speaking, tremors and difficulty with precise motions, such as writing or buttoning a shirt. It is important to play close attention to symptoms. Although usually these symptoms do not get worse with age, children with cerebral palsy may develop other neurological disorders, such as mental retardation or seizures.
Early signs of cerebral palsy may be detected at birth. However, if mild signs and symptoms are present, it may be difficult to make a diagnosis before the age of 5. In most cases, the disorder is diagnosed by age 1 or 2. Cerebral palsy can be diagnosed through brain scans and lab tests. If the baby is born prematurely, the doctor may suggest a cranial ultrasound, which uses high frequency sound waves to obtain images of the tissues inside the skull. This scan takes between 15 and 30 minutes. A CT scan or an MRI may also be needed. If the child has seizures, they may be recommended an electroencephalogram (EEG) to check for epilepsy. In an EEG test, a series of electrodes must be affixed to your child’s scalp. The procedure is painless and records the electrical activity inside your child’s brain. The lab tests performed usually include a blood test to help rule out other conditions such as blood-clotting disorders that can cause stroke and other tests that screen for genetic or metabolic problems.
Children with cerebral palsy often require long term care. The type and amount of treatment depend on the child’s symptoms and their severity. Medications used to help treat cerebral palsy include muscle relaxants and botulinum toxin to help relieve muscle spasms. Therapies, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy are very important. The surgical procedures that may be performed include orthopedic surgery on tendons, bones or joints, and severing nerves, a process in which surgeons cut the nerves serving spastic muscles in order to relax the muscles and reduce pain.