What is Cerebral Palsy?

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Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

While some people believe that the term "cerebral palsy" (CP) refers to a specific disease, it actually refers to a range of disorders involved the control of muscles. Cerebral palsy can be caused by many different problems. About half a million people in the US have some form of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is usually congenital and becomes evident early in life. However, it can be acquired later, for example, as a result of a head injury. Researchers now believe that congenital cerebral palsy is caused by faulty cell development in the embryo in the early stages of pregnancy. Maternal infection with the rubella virus (German measles) during pregnancy and severe jaundice of the newborn (as from untreated Rh incompatibility) are some of the conditions that have been associated with the development of cerebral palsy.

Children with cerebral palsy usually show symptoms within the first three years of life. They may be slower than their peers in achieving motor milestones like sitting upright, crawling, and walking. Symptoms range from mild and barely noticeable to severe and debilitating, and can include difficulty maintaining balance or walking, problems with fine motor tasks, or uncontrolled involuntary movements. The symptoms vary from person to person and may change over time.

However, cerebral palsy is NOT a progressive condition, meaning that it does not worsen over time. Cerebral palsy can occur by itself in an otherwise entirely normal child or it may be accompanied by other problems (such as, for example, a seizure disorder or mental retardation).

There are three main types of cerebral palsy -- spastic cerebral palsy, athetoid cerebral palsy, and mixed cerebral palsy. Spastic cerebral palsy, the most common type, is a condition in which there is too much muscle tone. This tightness results in stiff awkward movements. Athetoid cerebral palsy involves slow uncontrolled movements that involve the entire body, often making it difficult or impossible to walk. Mixed cerebral palsy is a combination of the two.

There is no specific cure for cerebral palsy, but a wide range of therapeutic interventions are available, depending upon individual situations and needs. Medications may be prescribed to control muscle spasms, and bracing can be used to help overcome muscle imbalances and prevent muscle contractures. Physical, speech, and occupational therapy along with counseling today are employed to help people with cerebral palsy lead healthy, productive lives.

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