What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral Palsy is an Umbrella Term That Covers A Group of Conditions
Your child’s pediatric neurologist has just told you that your son or daughter has cerebral palsy, or hypoxic ischemic brain injury, or neonatal encephalopathy. Your mind is spinning, and even though you’re listening and trying to follow, the words just run together like some weird foreign language you don’t have a hope of ever understanding. But that’s why we’re here—to help you understand.
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term that covers a group of conditions, with widely varying signs (things that can be objectively measured) and symptoms (subjective things related by the patient). “Cerebral” is derived from “cerebrum” (a part of the brain discussed below), and “palsy” means a movement/motion disorder (motor impairment). Cerebral palsy is a non-progressive impairment of your child’s motor functions which causes physical disability as your child develops. The severity of cerebral palsy and its impact on any given person depend to a large extent on what areas of the brain are affected. Individuals with cerebral palsy may be completely “normal” from a cognitive standpoint, or they may have very severe impairments in thinking, awareness, perception, communication and behavior.
Cerebral Palsy Frequency
Cerebral palsy occurs about twice in every 1000 births. The incidence increases dramatically in premature births and low weight babies who now survive the newborn period.
Cerebral Palsy Symptoms
The symptoms of cerebral palsy vary widely with the type and severity of the injury or developmental problem. Symptoms related to cerebral palsy and concurrent developmental problems include plasticity, muscle spasms, involuntary movements, unsteady gait, impaired balance, scissor walking, toe walking, abnormally high or low muscle tone, joint and bone deformities, and contractures.
The use of “muscle tone” does not refer to toning up your muscles so that you look good at the gym or on a beach. In this context, tone means how much tension or resistance to movement there is in a muscle. The tone of our muscles is what makes it possible for us to keep our bodies in a certain position, and changes in tone enable us to move. Movement requires the brain to send messages to each muscle that you want to move to change its resistance. For instance, bending your leg requires simultaneous shortening of one set of muscles (increasing the tone) and lengthening of the corresponding set of muscles (decreasing the tone). In order for that simple movement to be smooth, there has to be a balance in tone among all the involved muscles. Abnormal muscle tone, i.e., the inability to easily stay in place or the inability to move smoothly, is a major symptom of cerebral palsy.
There may also be seizures, speech and communication abnormalities, cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, hearing impairment or blindness or other vision impairments. Those with mild cerebral palsy may be fully employable and live independently. Those with more severe brain injuries may need full time care for their lifetimes.