Nemours Children’s Health System

Cerebral palsy – the most common physical disability in children

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the name for a series of neurological disorders caused by abnormalities in parts of the brain that control muscle movement. It is the most common form of physical disability in childhood, being present in two of every 1,000 children. Symptoms can range from mild to severe both in physical and mental capacities. In mild cases a single limb may be affected. In more severe cases, all four limbs and almost all functional aspects of the child are affected. CP is usually caused by brain damage that occurs before or during a child’s birth, or during the first 3 to 5 years of a child’s life. The brain damage that leads to cerebral palsy can also lead to other health issues, including vision, hearing and speech problems and learning disabilities.

Cerebral palsy affects muscle control and coordination, so even simple movements – or standing still – are difficult. Other vital functions that also involve motor skills, such as breathing, bladder and bowel control, eating, and learning, also may be affected when a child has CP. Cerebral palsy does not get worse over time.

The causes of most cases of CP are unknown, but many are the result of problems during pregnancy. This can be due to infections, maternal health problems, a genetic disorder, or something that interfered with normal brain development. Problems during labour and delivery can cause CP, but this is the exception.

Premature babies – particularly those who weigh less than 3.3 pounds (1,510 grams) – have a higher risk of CP than babies that are carried full-term, as are other low-birth-weight babies and multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.). Brain damage in infancy or early childhood can also lead to CP. A baby or toddler might suffer damage because of lead poisoning, bacterial meningitis, malnutrition, being shaken as an infant, or being in a car accident while not properly restrained.

Associated medical problems
Children with CP have varying degrees of physical disability. Some have only mild impairment, while others are severely affected. The brain damage that causes CP can also affect other brain functions, and can lead to further medical issues.
Associated medical problems may include visual impairment or blindness, hearing loss, food aspiration, gastroesophageal reflux, speech problems, drooling, tooth decay, sleep disorders, osteoporosis and behaviour problems.

Seizures, speech and communication problems, and mental retardation are more common among kids with the most severe forms of CP. Many have problems that may require ongoing therapy and devices such as braces or wheelchairs.

Collaborative approach
Currently there’s no cure for cerebral palsy, but a variety of resources and therapies can provide help and improve the quality of life for kids with CP. Children with neuromuscular disabilities require the collaborative approach of a multidisciplinary team. Because cerebral palsy symptoms can vary from child to child, children with cerebral palsy need specialized care tailored to their own individual needs.

As soon as CP is diagnosed, patients should begin therapy for movement, learning, speech, hearing, and social and emotional development. Paediatric cerebral palsy treatment also may include medication, surgery or braces to help improve muscle function. Different kinds of therapy can help them achieve maximum potential in growth and development.

Orthopaedic surgery can help address deformities of hips, knees, feet and scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which are common problems associated with CP. Severe muscle spasticity can sometimes be helped with medication taken by mouth or administered via a pump implanted under the skin.

A variety of medical specialists might be needed to treat the different medical conditions. If several medical specialists are needed, it’s important to have a primary care doctor or a CP specialist help you coordinate the care.

Nemours – Children’s Health System
Nemours is committed to improving the health of children. As a nonprofit children’s health organization, we consider the health of every child to be a sacred trust. Through family-centred care in our children’s hospitals and clinics in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, as well as world-changing research, education and advocacy, Nemours fulfils the promise of a healthier tomorrow for all children – even those who may never enter our doors.

Date of upload: 20th Jan 2017

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