Cerebral palsy is a term applied to a group of neurological disorders that impact muscular control and body movements. It usually appears or is diagnosed in very early childhood (3 years of age or prior) or infancy. Though incorrectly referred to as such, cerebral palsy is a condition and not a disease. It cannot be caught or otherwise transmitted from person to person.
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Until the 1980s, it was a widely held belief that cerebral palsy was a result of complications in the birthing process. An analysis of the data, however, showed that this was the situation only in a small minority of cases. The vast majority of cases are the result of congenital (occurring during fetal development) damage to the brain. The cause for such damage is usually unknown. Acquired cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain suffered after birth. It can be the result of bacterial or viral brain infections, abuse, falling or from injuries during automobile accidents.
Risk factors are variables that can predispose a person toward developing a condition, but do not guarantee it will develop. There are a variety of risk factors for cerebral palsy. Premature birth or below average birth weight can predispose a baby to cerebral palsy. Bacterial or viral infections affecting the mother, fetus or child which impacts the nervous system may lead to cerebral palsy. Oxygen deprivation during fetal development or birth has also been linked to the development of cerebral palsy. Additionally, RH or blood type incompatibility between mother and fetus can be a risk factor.
As with many neurological conditions, the effects of cerebral palsy can range from the mild to the very severe. Fortunately, the condition is not a progressive condition that grows worse over time; the degree of severity is stable over time. The most obvious effect is a lack of muscular control, which may range from awkwardness to involuntary or spastic movements. There can be impairment to speech, vision and hearing. It is also possible for there to be learning disabilities and impairment of cognitive development.
The first true step in the diagnosis process is an examination by a physician. The physician will test a variety of reflexes that an infant with cerebral palsy will have for longer than is average. The doctor will also check for hand preference which infants with cerebral palsy tend to develop sooner than average. Other conditions which might account for the signs, such as genetic or other neurological disorders, have to be ruled out. An X-ray, MRI, CT scan or sonogram may be performed to get a look at the structure of the brain. The physician will look for other signs common to cerebral palsy, such as vision problems or mental impairment.
There is no cure, as such, for cerebral palsy. Efforts regarding the condition tend to focus on prevention and management. Preventing cerebral palsy involves limiting or eliminating as many risk factors as possible. This can include treating infections, limiting exposure to radiation and medication, and immunizations. Management of cerebral palsy can involve surgeries and medication. Braces which augment muscular control are sometimes employed. There may also be social/psychological treatments to help manage the cognitive problems that can accompany the condition.