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Cerebral palsy (CP) causes a child to have problems with certain motor skills. This means that he or she may have trouble with coordination, movement, or muscle control. These problems are due to damage or abnormal development of certain brain areas. CP can range in severity but it doesn’t worsen over time. With diagnosis and treatment, children can learn how to manage their condition.
Most children with CP are born with it. CP is caused by problems with brain development before birth or early injury to the brain during the time of birth. CP is slightly more common in boys than girls. Babies with low birth weight or who are born before their due date (premature babies) are more likely to have the condition.
CP can be divided into different types. These include:
Spastic CP, in which a child has more muscle tone than normal in the arms, torso, or legs. This causes the muscles to be stiff and jerk or spasm. In some cases, only one side of the body is affected.
Athetoid CP, in which a child has poor muscle control causing uncontrolled or sudden movements of the arms, legs, hands, or feet. In some cases, the facial muscles or the tongue are also affected.
Ataxic CP, in which a child has less muscle tone than normal and more difficulty in coordinating movement. This can lead to problems walking or performing certain tasks such as dressing oneself.
CP affects each child differently. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Your child may have CP involving one or more of the following symptoms:
Weak muscles in the face, tongue, arms, legs, hands, or feet
Trouble swallowing, which causes drooling
Wide gait (legs spread far apart when walking)
Children with CP are more likely to have certain other health problems. These can include:
Vision, hearing, or speech problems
Convulsions or seizures
Learning or reasoning problems including intellectual disability
Trouble with feeding
Bladder or bowel control problems
Abnormal bone development
Your child’s doctor will give you more information about any other health problems your child has.
Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in neurologic problems.
If CP is suspected, the doctor performs a physical exam. He or she also asks about your child’s symptoms and health history. This is to check for the timing of possible brain damage or injury to your child.
The doctor may order blood tests or imaging tests for your child. These can sometimes help the doctor learn more about your child’s condition.
CP usually cannot be diagnosed until your child is about 2 years old. It takes time for the doctor to track your child’s physical and mental development. Babies with CP are slower to develop certain skills. For example, a child may take a longer amount of time learning how to roll over, sit up, crawl, or walk. Based on your child’s progress by age 2, your child’s doctor can then confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment of CP varies depending on your child’s needs. Your child will likely work with a team of teachers, doctors, nurses, and therapists to learn how to manage his or her condition.
Most children benefit from supportive services. These can include special learning facilities, or physical, occupational, or speech therapy.
Medications may be prescribed to help manage symptoms such as muscle spasms.
Aids, such as a walker or leg braces, may be needed to help your child maintain balance and help with walking. Some children may not walk at all and need a wheelchair.
CP is an ongoing problem that needs to be managed. With regular medical care and supportive services, your child can learn how to be as active and independent as possible.
A positive outlook helps while supporting your child. Encourage your child to be active and to try new things. Consider counseling, which can help you and your child deal with any worries or concerns. And seek help from friends, community resources, and support groups. The more you learn about your child’s condition, the more in control you may feel. For more information about CP, start by contacting United Cerebral Palsy at www.ucp.org.