Many parents of children diagnosed with cerebral palsy are given little explanation of the cause, severity or future implications of the disorder. Surprisingly, many children may not receive a cerebral palsy diagnosis until they are school age, even though there may have been circumstances at birth that indicated risk of cerebral palsy. Many pediatricians take a “wait and see” attitude when parents present issues of delayed development.
Most cerebral palsy conditions are caused by lesions on the brain. These lesions may be caused by:
Injuries that occurred during pregnancy or birth (congenital cerebral palsy)
Injuries sustained in the months or years following birth (acquired cerebral palsy)
While symptoms range from mild to severe, the condition does not get worse as your child gets older. Depending on the level of severity however, a child may be at risk for complications related to cerebral palsy such as developmental delays, failure to thrive, joint contractures, scoliosis or seizures.
Known as the most common form of cerebral palsy, spastic cerebral palsy causes tightness in the muscles. Patients have stiff and jerky movements and will often have difficulty letting go of something in their hand. Many children with spastic cerebral palsy rely on medications, therapies or surgical interventions to manage their spasticity and prevent secondary complications.
Athetoid cerebral palsy (fluctuating tone) is a neurological disorder resulting in a variety of movement disorders that result in involuntary and uncontrolled movements. A child may be shaky and unsteady and may make frequent, abrupt movements. Due to the mixed muscle tone involved in athetoid cerebral palsy, a child may experience difficulty with fine motor skills and maintaining torso control.
A less common form of cerebral palsy is ataxic cerebral palsy. Ataxic CP disturbs a child’s sense of balance and depth perception, resulting in jerky, uncoordinated movements. A child with ataxic cerebral palsy may exhibit mixed tone and experience challenges with controlled movements.
Depending on the level of severity, cerebral palsy may result in a variety of healthcare concerns including inadequate oral motor skills and compromised ability to consume adequate fluids and nutrients. Untreated, severe oral motor dysfunction can result in dehydration and failure to thrive. Other healthcare concerns may include childhood osteoporosis, movement disorders, gastro- esophageal reflux disease (GERD), contractures of the extremities, and scoliosis.
These affect the nerves that control voluntary muscles. “Neuro” indicates the origin of the disorder is at a neurological (brain) level. Left untreated, neuromuscular issues can severely impact a child’s quality of life and future development.
Not all children with cerebral palsy suffer from seizures, just as not all children who experience seizures have cerebral palsy. Seizures result from abnormal and excessive discharges of nerve impulses originating from certain brain cells. Some of this excessive activity reaches the skeletal muscle fibers and triggers the violent contractions typical of many seizures. Seizures differ depending on the portion of the brain involved. Seizures that occur in only one hemisphere or part of the brain are known as “focal seizures.” Seizures that occur in both hemispheres are referred to as “generalized seizures.”
Range of motion (ROM) is the measurement used to describe the degree of flexion (how far it can bend) and extension (how far it can stretch or extend) in a joint. ROM is usually measured by degrees. Many children, especially those with spastic cerebral palsy, experience limited range of motion. Children with hemiplegia may experience limited range of motion involving the extremities on one side of their body. Children with quadrapalegia may experience range of motion issues with all extremities including the trunk, putting them at risk for spinal scoliosis.
Receiving a cerebral palsy diagnosis allows parents to move forward and begin to pursue treatment and therapy options for their child. Early intervention is key to providing children with cerebral palsy the highest quality of life possible. For information about managing your child’s cerebral palsy, visit our Cerebral Palsy Treatments and Therapies page.