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Cerebral palsy: definition

Cerebral palsy, or CP, is a broad term that refers to any one of a number of so-called chronic "palsies," which are neurological disorders that affect body movement and muscle coordination. The cause, however, is not due to muscle or nerve problems but to brain damage. Neurological problems may not surface for months or even years, although the early signs usually begin to appear before the child is three years old. The child may walk with a stiff muscle gait or drag a leg or foot or walk on his or her toes. There may be an obvious lack of coordination in any voluntary movements; this is known as ataxia. The affects of CP are permanent and cannot be cured.

Probable Causes

The causes of CP are not completely known or understood, but it is suspected that most children who have the disorder are born with it, perhaps as high as 70%. About 20% suffer from a brain injury during the birthing process. Infants born prematurely stand a higher chance of CP. Severe illnesses, such as meningitis, may be a cause. Other problems may include:

* infections during pregnancy, such as German measles (rubella), which may
affect the developing nervous system of the fetus
* jaundice, which is not uncommon in newborns
* lack of oxygen during the delivery process
* incompatible blood conditions between mother and infant
* just the trauma of being born

Improper medical care at the time of birth may also be a factor in the development of cerebral palsy, such as failing to perform a cesarean section even when fetus distress seemed evident or failure to order specific tests during pregnancy even when presented with unusual factors.

Treatment and Prognosis

Although there is no cure for cerebral palsy, certain treatments can bring about noticeable improvement in a person's capabilities. Treatment is based on giving the child new ways to perform tasks that are difficult or overwhelming. Physical and occupational therapy play an important part in striving for a more normal life. Speech therapy is helpful in aiding a person with CP to control mouth and jaw muscles, which are often affected, making it difficult in some cases to breath or talk correctly or swallow food. Drugs can be used to control muscle spasms or seizures and reduce pain. In some cases, surgery will relax tight muscles, and braces, walkers, and other devices can ease the awkwardness of moving about.

Many people with CP develop hemiplegia, which causes limited use of limbs on one side of the body and normal use on the other side. Those with this condition will compensate by using only the unaffected side, which eventually causes problems with motor control. Constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT) has been developed to help ease this problem. It forces people with CP to use the affected limbs. Some surgical procedures help to ease problems, such as cutting nerves on affected limbs in order to reduce flexibility and allow more control.

Pain is a common problem for those with CP and is usually caused by tight muscles, stiff joints, or unusual or abnormal posture. Chronic sleep disorders are also common in children with this condition.

Although the initial brain damage that caused CP does not worsen overtime, the symptoms can ease or they can grow more severe. As the child matures and receives treatment, the symptoms may improve, but older age may bring on more severe problems. Orthopedic surgery may be required.

Some people with cerebral palsy have a normal life expectancy. That likely depends on the person's ability to live fairly independently of others, such as being able to walk or move about and feed him- or herself. This condition does not necessarily prevent a person from marriage and/or having children. In most all cases of cerebral palsy, the sooner a person is recognized and treated, the better are the chances for a more well-adjusted life.

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