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Cerebral palsy is the name given to a large group of motor (body movement) disorders that begin early in life and result from brain injuries that are non-progressive (do not worsen over time). Some children with cerebral palsy also have learning, vision, hearing and language disorders. Brain injuries that produce cerebral palsy can happen before, during or after birth. Although the specific brain injury causing cerebral palsy does not worsen, the movement problems produced by the injury can vary over time.
In most cases of cerebral palsy, the exact cause is unknown. Some possibilities include developmental abnormalities of the brain, brain injury to the fetus caused by low oxygen levels (asphyxia) or poor circulation, infection, and trauma. Injury and asphyxia during labor and delivery once were thought to be common reasons for cerebral palsy. However, some current research suggests that cerebral palsy is caused by problems that happen earlier in the pregnancy and then result in a difficult delivery.
There are four basic types of cerebral palsy:
- Spastic (stiff, difficult movement)
- Dyskinetic or athetoid (involuntary and uncontrolled movement)
- Ataxic (poor coordination and balance)
- Mixed (combination of these types)
Cerebral palsy occurs at a rate of approximately one to two out of every 1,000 live births, with the highest risk among premature, low birth weight infants (birth weight less than 1,500 grams) and multiple-gestation pregnancies (twins, triplets, etc.).
Early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before three years of age. Infants with cerebral palsy are frequently slow to reach developmental milestones such as learning to roll over, sit, crawl, smile or walk.
There is no standard therapy that works for all patients. Drugs can be used to control seizures and muscle spasms, special braces can compensate for muscle imbalance. Surgery, mechanical aids to help overcome impairments, counselling for emotional and psychological needs, and physical – occupational, speech and behavioural therapy – may be employed.
At this time, cerebral palsy cannot be cured, but due to medical research, many patients can enjoy near-normal lives if their neurological problems are properly managed.
Further information and support
Cerebral Palsy Australia
General Enquiries (03) 9843 2030
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Reviewed by Dr Padraic Grattan-Smith, Department of Paediatric Neurology, Sydney Children's Hospital, Australia