Cerebral palsy is a term referring to any of a number of types of brain damage affecting the cerebellum, the largest part of the brain. Often, the damage is due to inflammation, caused by infection or related to low birth weight or birth defects. Over half of all children with cerebral palsy were found to have birth defects or low birth weight. Doctors once believed that cerebral palsy often resulted from obstructions preventing oxygen from reaching the baby’s brain during or immediately after birth, for example, the umbilical cord being wrapped around the baby’s neck. While this does occur, it is usually harmless, and rarely leads to cerebral palsy.
While causes of many cases of cerebral palsy have been found, it is not always clear why these things happen. Women who have rubella, chickenpox, toxoplasmosis, or certain other infectious diseases during pregnancy are more likely to have children with birth defects. Children born as multiples are likely to have low birth weight, and, especially in cases in which one of the children miscarried, are prone to cerebral palsy. Recent studies have also found a family link. The children, siblings, and even first cousins of people with cerebral palsy are particularly at risk for having the condition themselves.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but there are interventions that can help minimize the deficit and improve the child’s capabilities. These interventions are most effective the sooner they are given, when the brain tissue is less specialized; they generally involve training a healthy portion of the brain to take over or augment a function of the damaged part. That is why doctors try to make a diagnosis sooner rather than later, by tracking children known to be at risk of developing the disease, by looking for delays in reaching developmental milestones in the first year, an by looking for symptoms of cerebral palsy such as poor muscle tone and abnormal movements.
Researchers have now found a better way to treat the movement problems that cerebral palsy can cause. They have devised a rubric for classifying patients based on the nature of the deficit, determining that different types of movement issue benefit from different types of treatment. This will make it easier for treatments to be used that are tailored for the person’s needs.