Learn about Cerebral Palsy causes, treatments, and impacts on National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day

Do you know anyone with cerebral palsy? Did you know this disorder affects approximately one million people in the United States alone and about 18 million worldwide, according to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation? Cerebral palsy, also known as CP, has been deemed the most common motor disability that is found during childhood.

Living with CP can be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible. People know more than ever, thanks to advancements in research and medical information. The proper help, tools, medication, and support have made a world of difference to those diagnosed with CP.

To help draw awareness to those living with CP and the challenges they may face, National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day on March 25 was created. Here are ten facts about cerebral palsy so you can join the conversation.

A Brain Injury During Pregnancy, Birth, or Not Long After Can Cause CP

An occupation with baby with cerebral palsy.
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Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury. This can occur during pregnancy, during birthing, or not long after the baby is born. More specifically, about 70% of the instances of CP are caused during pregnancy.

A common misconception is that brain injuries worsen over time, so the effects of CP become more pronounced. That’s not the case. The injury stays the same, but living with it for years—decades—creates more stress on the injured brain, so symptoms can start to worsen.

There Is No Cure for CP, But Medication Can Help Manage Symptoms

Syringe with drugs for paralysis palsy treatment
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Unfortunately, there is no cure for CP, as it is a permanent injury. That doesn’t mean solutions don’t exist. Children are usually prescribed medication to help them manage their symptoms. The idea is that the symptoms are then manageable enough that they can live a happy and otherwise normal life.

Medications are often given to help with uncontrollable muscle movements, a common issue with dyskinetic CP. The same medication can also help limit or prevent drooling. There are also medications to help relieve pain, control seizures, and help with digestion.

CP Varies in Degrees of Severity

Stroke patient has Severe headache and Xray computer scan show basal ganglia hemorrhange with intracerebral hemorrhage.
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Not all people with CP have the same level of severity. Different degrees of CP significantly impact how “normal” a person’s life can be.

With mild CP, the child is usually able to move with very little help. In a moderate case, the child could require medication, braces, and adaptive technology. Then there are severe cases in which the child will be required to use a wheelchair and will need help with all daily routines and activities.

CP Is Typically Diagnosed in the Toddler Years

A baby with cerebral palsy on physiotherapy in a children therapy center.
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Another misconception that people can have is when CP is diagnosed. Because it’s not always apparent from the start, the most common ages for diagnosis are two to three. Statistics show that it is more common in males, in babies with a low birth weight, and in black children.

As for how often a baby is born with CP, it is estimated that one in 345 children are born with it.

The Mother’s Age Can Increase the Risk Factor

Young preganant woman expecting a baby doctor visit
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Research published by Pediatric Neurology has also shown a link between the mother’s age and the increased risk of CP. Women who are older than 34 and younger than 20 during pregnancy have an increased risk of their child being born with CP.

Certain health conditions can also increase the risk of a child developing CP. The risk profile is increased If the mother has abnormal thyroid function, seizures, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, obesity, or excess protein in the urine.

While these factors can increase the risk of a child having CP, there is still no concrete reason for why CP develops.

Not All Types of CP Are the Same

A diagram indicating the types of cerebral palsy using the example of drawings of the brain and a human figure.
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Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term that is given to house four different types of the disorder. The four types of cerebral palsy are athetoid (dyskinetic), spastic, mixed, and ataxic. Determining the type of CP will be important when putting together a support and treatment plan.

The most common of the types is spastic, with about 75%-85% of children having this type. This is the one that causes stiff muscles, impeding movement.

Early Diagnosis is Important

Specialized treatment of children diagnosed with congenital cerebral palsy.
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Just like many other disorders, early diagnosis is essential since the child can then be set up with the proper type of support, treatment, and management plan. Cerebral palsy screening can be done at a young age and typically requires developmental screening, monitoring, and medical evaluations.

This screening type is done over time, so it’s not a one-and-done test. The screening will determine not only if CP is present but also what type of CP the child has.

The Most Common Effects of CP

Disabled girl sitting in wheelchair.
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It’s impossible to generalize and put all those with CP into one box. However, there are a few relatively common symptoms.

Here are the most common ways that CP affects those diagnosed with it:

  • Chronic pain
  • Unable to walk
  • Hip displacement
  • Isn’t able to verbalize
  • Must be tube-fed

These symptoms also range in severity, with some affecting daily life much more than others.

Delays Reaching Movement and Motor Milestones Can Be an Early Sign

An occupation with baby with cerebral palsy.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / KONSTANTIN_SHISHKIN

One of the most common signs of CP in a baby or young child is delays in reaching movement and motor milestones. These can include sitting, rolling over, standing, and walking. This is why it is important for parents to speak to the child’s pediatrician if there are any milestone delays.

Additional Therapy Options Can Be Explored

little kid with cerebral palsy has musculoskeletal therapy by doing exercises in body fixing.
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Medication can be extremely helpful in managing symptoms, but it’s certainly not the only route. Other treatment options can help someone with CP in various ways, such as aquatic therapy, chiropractic care, occupational therapy, yoga, and physical therapy. Each of these is meant to address and then help manage the physical symptoms of CP.

It’s worth noting that a child’s needs can change over time, so the care team needs to always evaluate and monitor the progress and success of the treatment plan.

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