Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term used to describe a number of different neurological disorders. Symptoms of cerebral palsy appear in infancy and/or early childhood. It is a permanent disorder caused by a brain injury or brain abnormality that interferes with the cells that control strength, muscle tone, and coordination.
As a child grows, skeletal and joint development are affected, which can create impairment and/or deformities, as well as impairment of gross and fine motor skills, balance, reflexes, coordination, and posture. It’s also common for there to be oral motor dysfunction, including issues with swallowing or feeding, poor facial muscle tone, and speech impairment.
Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy
Detection of cerebral palsy typically occurs when a child is a few months or years old, even though most children are born with or develop the disorder as a result of a traumatic delivery. It might be possible for doctors to diagnose the disorder if an event occurred during pregnancy or delivery that increased the risk for cerebral palsy.
Most symptoms of cerebral palsy are evident by the time a child reaches five years of age. The most obvious signs of the disorder are developmental delays related to rolling, crawling, sitting, and walking. The eight clinical factors that are evaluated when diagnosing cerebral palsy include:
- Fine motor function
- Gross motor function
- Coordination and control
- Muscle tone
- Oral motor function
Children with cerebral palsy experience muscle tone impairment, which is one of the most noticeable symptoms of the disorder. Muscle tone makes it possible for muscles to work in coordination and maintain proper resistance. Children with cerebral palsy often demonstrate a lack of muscle tone, leading to decreased tension that gives the appearance of floppy or relaxed limbs (hypotonia), or they might have increased muscle tone or tension, giving the appearance of stiff or rigid limbs (hypertonia).
Cerebral palsy also tends to cause issue with movement coordination and control. Limbs might be constantly extended, contracted, or moving rhythmic or spastic jerks. These symptoms tend to increase with stress.
Children with cerebral palsy also tend to have issues with reflexes and posture. They might exhibit excessive reflex responses that include twitching or have underdeveloped reflexes that cause a delay. The posture of individuals with cerebral palsy tends to be asymmetrical, so limbs are not aligned as they typically would be.
Finally, children with cerebral palsy tend to experience developmental delays, such as delays in walking, running, jumping, and maintaining balance. Fine motor development delays are also an issue, and children often take longer to hold objects properly and set objects down with ease. There might also be oral motor function, which affects the lips, tongue, and jaw, and interferes with speaking, chewing, and swallowing, as well as breathing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability in childhood. About one in 323 children has been identified with cerebral palsy according to estimates from the agency’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. The agency also notes that many children with cerebral palsy also have co-occurring developmental disorders, including almost half (41%) with co-occurring epilepsy and nearly seven percent with autism spectrum disorder.
Causes of Cerebral Palsy
There are several factors that increase a child’s risk for developing cerebral palsy. Premature birth and babies with low birth weights are especially susceptible to the disorder. The CDC reports the prevalence of cerebral palsy was 6.2 per 1000 births among children born weighing 3.33 to 5.5 pounds and 59.5 per 1000 births among children born weighing less than 3.33 pounds.
Cerebral palsy might also be an issue when there is a disruption in the supply of blood and oxygen reaching the brain during development. This can occur during pregnancy or shortly after birth. It’s estimated that fewer than 10 percent of cerebral palsy cases are due to disruption of oxygen supply.
It’s also possible for cerebral palsy to develop as a result of an infection in the mother during pregnancy. Approximately 12 percent of spastic cerebral palsy cases are due to an infection of the placental membranes when a child is born full-term. This risk increases to 28 percent for premature babies. It’s also possible for cerebral palsy to develop in the months and years after a child is born. Most frequently, this is attributed to brain injuries from falls, motor vehicle crashes, and infections.