What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is the name given a group of developmental disorders of movement and posture which are caused by damage to the brain before, during or after birth. Elna van der Ham, spokesperson for Cerebral Palsy Association of the Eastern Cape describes the condition in more detail.

What exactly is CP?

There are different kinds of CP that can make a person’s muscles stiff (spastic CP); make a person’s movements uncoordinated and unsteady (ataxic CP); or even jerky and involuntary (athetoid/dyskinetic CP). Each kind can be further categorised as mild, moderate or severe.

In all cases, CP manifests an issue with movement due to a problem in the brain, hence the name ‘cerebral’ (meaning brain) and ‘palsy’ (meaning muscle weakness/poor control). And although the damage to the brain that caused the CP will not progress and get worse, the way in which CP affects the person may change over time – sometimes is may improve, or even get worse.

Incidence and diagnosis

The general incidence of CP occurring at birth is 2 per 1000, says My Child without Limits, but the overall incidence of CP in all children (including those who acquire the condition later in life due to an accident like near drowning or a head injury) is 3.5 per 1000. This makes CP the most common motor disorder, and second most common disability after autism, in young children.

However, because CP is caused primarily by environmental factors, including what mom does while pregnant, the incidence has been found to actually be as high as 10:1000 in places like rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, says Research SA.

According to Elna, diagnosis is rarely made at birth, “It is only months or even years later that parents notice a delay in their child’s development, or an abnormality in their child’s muscle tone.”    
In order to make a diagnosis, a doctor would need to observe the child’s behaviour for some time to rule out any other conditions.

The future for a child with CP

Although the brain damage that caused the CP can never be reversed, Elna strongly advises how important early intervention is for a child with CP. “Early help and training can enhance the child’s development and prevent the movement difficulties that often become worse as they get older, especially if they don’t get any intervention.”

Most people also assume that a child with CP is mentally disabled, which is not always the case. “The area of the brain that is damaged may not affect cognitive abilities. This means that the person will have obvious physical disabilities but no mental disability at all.” There are individuals with CP who get degrees at university, even though they are wheelchair-bound.
There are various treatment options including early intervention therapies, medications, surgery, and support and education. All these options mean that a person with CP can lead a fulfilling and full life.

What causes CP?

“In many cases there is no identifiable cause for the brain damage,” explains Elna. “But the cause could be a lack of oxygen before, during or after birth. Even premature babies are at a high risk of developing CP. Mothers who take in alcohol or abuse drugs during pregnancy, get sexually transmitted diseases, or attempt abortions, and even very young or very old mothers are at higher risk.”

Red Flags

If you are concerned about your baby, the following is a list of red flags that indicate that your baby might need to be observed by a professional:
  • Lack of alertness
  • Irritability or fussiness
  • Abnormal, high-pitched cry
  • Trembling of the arms and legs
  • Poor feeding abilities
  • Low muscle tone (floppiness)
  • Seizures, body twitching
  • Holding hands in tight fists

For more local support contact the National Association for Persons with Cerebral Palsy or the Cerebral Palsy Association of the Eastern Cape

For international support and research visit My Child without Limits or The American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine

Does your child have cerebral palsy? how has your family dealt with it?

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