Understanding cerebral palsy

Posted on 23 May 2013

Two in every 1 000 babies will have cerebral palsy according to the World Health Organization, but with therapeutic treatment you can do a great deal to help your child, says Dr Birgit Schlegel, paediatric neurologist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg.

What are the signs that my child might have cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy, or CP, covers a range of neurological disorders that typically appear in babies or children under the age of three. A baby or child with CP is usually slow to reach developmental milestones. So your baby might not be rolling over, sitting or walking when others of the same age are doing so. A small child would also show signs in the way they move. They may drag a leg, walk on their toes, or walk in a scissored or crouching way, or have exaggerated reflexes or spasticity, and their speech and other functions could be affected.

When should I see a doctor?
Should you be worried about any possible delays in your child’s development or any difficulties with their movement, muscle tone or co-ordination, see a doctor so that you could get prompt diagnosis should there be a problem.

Why would my child have CP?
While CP manifests itself in the way your child moves or as a muscular disorder, it actually stems from the brain. Brought on by a lack of development in the area of the brain that controls muscle movement, or by damage to the brain, it can stem from pregnancy due to illness, infection or drug or alcohol use. It could also be brought during birth by a very premature birth, a lack of oxygen or injury, or in a small child by brain infections, head trauma or shortage of oxygen.

Whatever the cause, CP can have a permanent effect on the way a child moves, co-ordinates and sometimes on their mental and speech ability. But don’t lose heart. There are things you can do.

What can I do for a child with CP?
While this is not a condition that can be cured, you can often improve your child’s abilities tremendously with therapeutic treatment, and while some children are severely affected, many children with CP go to mainstream schools and live to lead near-normal adulthoods the same as anybody else.

However, the sooner you can get going on treatments the better their chances.
The first line of treatment for a child with cerebral palsy might include physical therapy to help with their physical strength, balance and motor development, speech therapy should they need help with this, speech therapists can also help with such issues as eating or swallowing, and medication, which can loosen tight muscles, manage pain or some of the complications of spasticity.

Corrective surgery may be recommended for some children. This in general focuses on loosening tight muscles to increase the range and control of movement, or on cutting the nerves of the affected limbs – a selective dorsal rhizotomy – for children with severely tight muscles in their legs. The aim is to reduce muscle stiffness or spams and introduce more control.

Read Dan Skinstad’s story here on living with CP and how he’s changed his life – with a 2 300km kayak adventure around Iceland’s shore, no less.

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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.