Facts About Cerebral Palsy

As the parent of a child with cerebral palsy (CP), you will probably have many questions and concerns about the condition as your child grows. On your search for information, however, it may be difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Getting the true key facts about cerebral palsy can help you help your loved one. Here are 8 facts about cerebral palsy, supported by science.

It is the Most Common Motor Disability in Childhood

Cerebral palsy is the number one most common motor disability in childhood. It affects over 17 million people worldwide. Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that cerebral palsy is present in 1.5 to more than four in every 1,000 live births. About one in 323 children today have CP. Studies show that cerebral palsy occurs more often in males than females. It is also more common among black children than white or Hispanic children.

CP Affects Movement, Muscle Tone, and Posture

Cerebral means relating to the brain, and palsy means muscle weakness or other problems with the muscles. Cerebral palsy affects muscle control, growth, and strength. It can cause a range of symptoms, such as:

  • Spasticity (muscle stiffness)
  • Uncontrollable muscle movements
  • Poor balance
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slowed movements
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing
  • Vision or hearing difficulties
  • Trouble paying attention

Symptoms of CP can vary from person to person. Motor disabilities can be very mild, or profound. Some children may need wheelchairs or assistive devices to walk, although more than half (58.2%) of children with CP can walk on their own. Many children (41%) have epilepsy on top of cerebral palsy, while some have other additional impairments.

CP Does not Always Affect Mental Abilities

It is common for people to immediately associate cerebral palsy with cognitive or mental disabilities. However, this is not always the case. The majority of patients with CP, in fact, have above-average IQs. Cerebral palsy is a separate disability from mental challenges. If a child with CP does have cognitive difficulties, it is a co-occurring condition, and not the cerebral palsy itself.

There are Different Types of Cerebral Palsy

The majority of children with CP (70%-80%) have spastic cerebral palsy, or the type that makes muscles stiff and difficult to control. Damage to the motor cortex in the brain can cause spastic CP. Around 6% have dyskinetic cerebral palsy, which involves involuntary muscle movements. Damage to the basal ganglia can cause this type of CP. Another 6% have ataxic CP, characterized by shaky movements and poor balance. Ataxic cerebral palsy stems from damage to the cerebellum. The remaining percentage of people have mixed type cerebral damage, which can arise from combination brain damage.

85%-90% of Cerebral Palsy is Congenital

The majority (85%-90%) of cerebral palsy cases are congenital. That means the CP is present from birth. Congenital CP cases occur before or during birth, rather than occurring after birth. Although doctors often do not know the specific cause of cerebral palsy in an infant, damage to the brain before or during birth can contribute.

The remaining CP cases arise from brain damage occurring more than 28 days after birth. This is acquired CP, and most often stems from a head injury or serious infection. Cerebral palsy is not genetic. Someone with CP can conceive, experience a normal pregnancy, and give birth to a child who does not have the condition.

Abnormal Brain Development or Brain Damage Can Cause CP

The most common cause of cerebral palsy is an interruption to normal brain development before or during birth. Any abnormal development of the brain or damage to the brain at delicate stages could permanently affect a child’s muscle growth and control. Brain malformations may occur naturally, or they can stem from risk factors such as maternal infections or brain injuries during a complicated birth. Loss of oxygen to the infant’s brain during birth, for example, could cause an acquired brain injury that leads to cerebral palsy.

Most Cases are Noticeable in the First 12-18 Months

Except in its mildest forms, cerebral palsy is discernible in the first 12 to 18 months of a child’s life. A child missing milestones such as sitting or walking are possible signs of CP. In a baby six months or younger, stiff muscles, a floppy body, or an overextended back and neck could point to CP. In older babies, difficulty bringing the hands together, bringing hands to mouth, or crawling in a lopsided manner could be symptoms of CP. Early diagnosis is important for early intervention and treatment.

It is Incurable, but Treatments are Available

Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition with no known cure. However, it is unchanging – meaning a child’s condition will not worsen or deteriorate over time. Treatments for CP are available to help improve the lives of those with CP. Surgeries, medications, and multiple types of therapies are some of the most common treatments for cerebral palsy.

Physical and speech therapy may help a child with CP improve motor skills and communication. Occupational therapy can help children with healthy development and quality of life. A doctor will create a personalized treatment plan for someone with cerebral palsy; often with a unique combination of intervention services.

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