Cerebral palsy

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is the name for a group of nerve problems that make it hard for a child to control movement. The nerve problems are caused by damage to the brain. In most cases, this damage happens before birth. Cerebral palsy is one of the most common causes of lasting disability in children.


Cerebral palsy (CP) in children: Overview

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the name for a group of nerve problems that make it hard for a child to control movement.

CP is caused by injury to the brain. In most cases, this injury happens before birth.

The way your child is affected may be different than how other children are affected. For some children, it causes a limp. Others have little or no control over their arms and legs or other parts of the body. To find out more about how the disease affects your child, your doctor may do more tests.

You and your doctor can work together to create a treatment plan for your child. This plan can help manage symptoms. It can also help your child be as independent as possible. The plan will probably include physical therapy. It may also include medicines and other therapies.

Learning that your child has CP isn't easy. And raising a child who has it can be hard. It may help to join a support group or talk with other parents who have a child with special needs, so you don't feel alone. You may also want to try counseling. It could help you understand and deal with all the emotions you may feel.


What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy (CP)?

Everyone who has CP has problems with body movement and posture. But the physical problems vary. People may have:

  • A limp or a hard time walking.
  • Little or no control over their arms and legs or other parts of the body, such as the mouth and tongue. This can cause problems with eating and speaking.
  • Seizures or intellectual disability. This is more likely in people who have severe forms of CP.

Babies with severe CP often have problems with their posture. Their bodies may be either very floppy or very stiff.

As your child gets older, new symptoms may appear, or symptoms may change or get worse.


How is cerebral palsy (CP) diagnosed?

The doctor will do a physical exam and ask you about your family's health history and your child's past health. You may be asked about your child's growth and development. The doctor may ask about any problems you may have noticed. Parents are often the first to notice that their baby has problems with certain abilities and skills.

Your doctor may also do tests, such as lab tests or an MRI of your child's head. Or your doctor may look at ultrasound pictures of the brain. These tests can sometimes help the doctor find the cause of CP.

If your child has a severe form of CP, a doctor may be able to find the problem within the first few weeks of your child's life. But even when a baby has CP at birth, the signs may not be noticed until the child is 1 to 3 years old.


How is cerebral palsy (CP) treated?

Even though CP can't be cured, treatment can help people make the most of their abilities and physical strength and improve their quality of life. Treatment can also prevent other problems caused by CP.

Treatment varies by the person. It changes as needed. In general, treatment focuses on ways to maintain or improve a person's quality of life and overall health.

Regular visits with your child's doctors are important to monitor your child's condition.

Treatment for CP includes:

Physical therapy.

This can help your child get around as much as possible. It often continues throughout your child's life. It may help prevent the need for surgery.


They can help control some of the symptoms of CP, prevent or minimize problems caused by CP, and treat other medical conditions related to CP.


It may sometimes be used for a person with severe problems. Surgery may help reduce muscle stiffness or spasms. It may also allow more flexibility and control of the affected limbs and joints.

Devices and equipment.

These include braces, casts, and splints. The type of devices used depends on a child's needs. The devices maintain or improve how well joints move, help strengthen muscles and relax overactive (spastic) muscles, and help with daily activities.

Pain management.

This helps your child with short- and long-term pain.

Physical therapy and special equipment may be used together. One example is constraint-induced movement therapy, also called shaping. This encourages a child to move more by presenting interesting activities or objects and giving praise and rewards when a child tries to use the less-functioning muscles.

Ongoing treatment for CP focuses on continuing and adjusting current treatments and adding new treatments as needed.

Working with others involved with your child's care, understanding your child's needs and rights, and taking care of yourself and other family members are all important parts of treatment.

Other treatments

Other treatments may also be needed, depending on specific needs.

  • Occupational therapy helps children, teens and adults adapt.
  • Speech therapy helps control the mouth muscles. This treatment can be of great help to children with speech or eating problems.
  • A registered dietitian can provide nutritional counseling when a child has problems eating or isn't gaining weight.
  • Both massage therapy and hatha yoga are designed to help relax tense muscles, strengthen muscles, and keep joints flexible.
  • Therapies to help learning and sensory development may benefit babies and young children. Some also help people of other ages.
  • Behavioral therapy may help some school-age children with CP learn ways to communicate with others.
  • Biofeedback may be useful as part of physical therapy or on its own. Some who use the technique learn how to control muscles or reduce tension.

You may hear about a wide range of controversial treatments for CP, such as electrical stimulation and special diets. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any type of treatment you are considering for your child. Some of these treatments can cause harm.

Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.


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