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Cerebral Palsy is considered a neurological disorder caused by a non-progressive brain injury or malformation that occurs while the child’s brain is under development. Cerebral Palsy primarily affects body movement and muscle coordination. Though Cerebral Palsy can be defined, having Cerebral Palsy does not define the person that has the condition.
Definition of Cerebral Palsy
While Cerebral Palsy (pronounced seh-ree-brel pawl-zee) is a blanket term commonly referred to as “CP” and described by loss or impairment of motor function, Cerebral Palsy is actually caused by brain damage. The brain damage is caused by brain injury or abnormal development of the brain that occurs while a child’s brain is still developing — before birth, during birth, or immediately after birth.
Cerebral Palsy affects body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance. It can also impact fine motor skills, gross motor skills and oral motor functioning.
What is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral Palsy is the result of a brain injury or a brain malformation. Individuals with Cerebral Palsy were most likely born with the condition, although some acquire it later.
It was once thought that Cerebral Palsy was caused by complications during the birthing process. While this does happen, it is now widely agreed that birthing complications account for only a small percentage, an estimated 10 percent, of Cerebral Palsy cases.
Current research suggests the majority of Cerebral Palsy cases result from abnormal brain development or brain injury prior to birth or during labor and delivery. Accidents, abuse, medical malpractice, negligence, infections, and injury are some known risk factors that may lead to Cerebral Palsy.
Cerebral Palsy causes physical impairment
An individual with Cerebral Palsy will likely show signs of physical impairment. However, the type of movement dysfunction, the location and number of limbs involved, as well as the extent of impairment, will vary from one individual to another. It can affect arms, legs, and even the face; it can affect one limb, several, or all.
Cerebral Palsy affects muscles and a person’s ability to control them. Muscles can contract too much, too little, or all at the same time. Limbs can be stiff and forced into painful, awkward positions. Fluctuating muscle contractions can make limbs tremble, shake, or writhe.
Balance, posture, and coordination can also be affected by Cerebral Palsy. Tasks such as walking, sitting, or tying shoes may be difficult for some, while others might have difficulty grasping objects.
Other complications, such as intellectual impairment, seizures, and vision or hearing impairment also commonly accompany Cerebral Palsy.
Every case of Cerebral Palsy is unique to the individual
Every case of cerebral palsy is unique to the individual. One person may have total paralysis and require constant care, while another with partial paralysis might have slight movement tremors but require little assistance. This is due in part by the type of injury and the timing of the injury to the developing brain.
Cerebral Palsy is non-life-threatening
With the exception of children born with a severe case, Cerebral Palsy is considered to be a non-life-threatening condition. Most children with Cerebral Palsy are expected to live well into adulthood.
Cerebral Palsy is incurable
Cerebral Palsy is damage to the brain that cannot currently be fixed. Treatment and therapy help manage effects on the body.
Cerebral Palsy is non-progressive
The brain lesion is the result of a one-time brain injury and will not produce further degeneration of the brain.
Cerebral Palsy is permanent
The injury and damage to the brain is permanent. The brain does not “heal” as other parts of the body might. Because of this, the Cerebral Palsy itself will not change for better or worse during a person’s lifetime. On the other hand, associative conditions may improve or worsen over time.
Cerebral Palsy is not contagious; it is not communicable
In the majority of cases, Cerebral Palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain. Brain damage is not spread through human contact. However, a person can intentionally or unintentionally increase the likelihood a child will develop Cerebral Palsy through abuse, accidents, medical malpractice, negligence, or the spread of a bacterial or viral infection.
Cerebral Palsy is manageable
The impairment caused by Cerebral Palsy is manageable. In other words, treatment, therapy, surgery, medications and assistive technology can help maximize independence, reduce barriers, increase inclusion and thus lead to an enhanced quality of life.
Cerebral Palsy is chronic
The effects of Cerebral Palsy are long-term, not temporary. An individual diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy will have the condition for their entire life.
Every case of Cerebral Palsy is unique to the individual. One person may have total paralysis and require constant care, while another with partial paralysis might have slight movement tremors but require little assistance. This is due in part by the type of injury and the timing of the injury to the developing brain.
Frequently Asked Questions
When a parent learns his or her child has Cerebral Palsy, they begin to define and understand the condition. Questions arise. Words such as disability, impairment, special needs, and handicap are helpful when used correctly. However, the same words – when misunderstood and misused – can be hurtful, offensive and harmful.
Is Cerebral Palsy an impairment?
Yes. Impairment is the loss or limitation of function. Impairment is a condition that limits a person to some degree.
Individuals diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy have a neurological condition which primarily causes physical impairment involving limitation or loss of function and mobility. They experience difficulty with muscle coordination, muscle control, muscle tone, reflexes, balance or posture. They may have difficulty with fine or gross motor skills. Their facial muscles may be affected.
Individuals with Cerebral Palsy often have associative and co-mitigating conditions that also impose additional challenges, such as a learning impairment, seizures, and vision or hearing loss.
A person can have impairment without having a disability.
Is Cerebral Palsy a disability?
Sometimes. A disability is an impairment that substantially limits a person’s ability to perform life activities within a range comparable to someone the same age and circumstance. A disability may include impairments that limit mobility, hearing, sight, and communication.
The term “disability” is primarily used to qualify a person fairly for government benefits, access to healthcare, special education programs, workers compensation, workplace accommodations, travel accommodations, or health insurance.
All individuals with disability have impairment. However, a person can have impairment without disability. In other words, their impairment does not restrict them from performing a life activity. For example, a person who wears glasses or contact lenses to correct nearsightedness has impairment, but does not have a disability; the impairment — nearsightedness — is correctable and therefore does not restrict performance. However, a person declared legally blind is unable to perform certain functions, such as driving, and hence is said to have a disability that restricts performance.
Is Cerebral Palsy a disease?
No. Cerebral Palsy is not a disease - it is actually a term used to describe a range of conditions that typically cause physical impairment.
Is Cerebral Palsy a handicap?
A handicap is a situational barrier or obstacle that limits activity or restricts participation, often temporarily. The World Health Organization defines two types of handicaps:
Activity limitations are difficulties an individual may have in executing a task or action.
Participation restrictions are problems an individual may have in involvement in life situations.
A handicap is apparent only when the barrier or obstacle exists. For a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility, stairs and narrow hallways may present a handicap. Ramps, elevators, and alternate hallways remove the handicap.
Today, much is being done to remove barriers and obstacles for individuals with impairment. WHO and U.S. government agencies guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, collaborate with employers, retailers, transportation sources and private groups on a mission to identify obstacles and barriers. They also work to reduce or eliminate handicaps. These organizations promote inclusion, accessibility, and accommodation standards.
Do individuals with Cerebral Palsy have special needs?
Individuals with conditions that may require additional supports, help, or technology are generally considered to have special needs. The term “special needs” generally refers to the need to assist, support, adapt, modify or accommodate a person in order to provide barrier-free, equal access to experiences, events, buildings, information, participation and inclusion that is afforded a person without disability or impairment. Accessibility and inclusion are rights afforded to everyone – with or without disability – to participate in activities of daily living, education, transportation, employment, travel, public spaces, and housing, to name a few.
Is your child being evaluated for Cerebral Palsy?
We have resources that can help you through the diagnosis process.
Has your child been recently diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy?
Are you wondering if you are doing everything possible you can for your child?
For immediate assistance, call the MyChild™ Call Center at (800) 692-4453
Do you have more questions, or concerns?
We have resources that can help you enroll your child in early intervention services, coordinate your child’s care plan, and apply for beneficial government programs.
Definition of Cerebral Palsy
For other sources with general information on the definition of Cerebral Palsy, MyChild™ recommends the following websites:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC – Department of Health and Human Services
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS – National Institutes of Health
- Disabilities and Rehabilitation – World Health Organization
- American’s with Disabilities Act, or ADA – U.S. Department of Justice
- Birth Defects – March of Dimes