What is cerebral palsy?
"Cerebral palsy isn't something that everybody understands, so it's very reassuring to have a group of people behind me that do. It's a comfort to know I won't be alone."
Cerebral palsy (cp) is not a disease or an illness. It is the description of a physical impairment that affects movement. The movement problems vary from barely noticeable to extremely severe. No two people with cp are the same; it is as individual as people themselves.
"Cerebral palsy" includes a variety of conditions. The three main types correspond to injuries to different parts of the brain:
People with spastic cp find that some muscles become very stiff and weak, especially under effort. This can affect their control of movement.
People with athetoid cp have some loss of control of their posture, and they tend to make unwanted movements.
People with ataxic cp usually have problems with balance. They may also have shaky hand movements and irregular speech.
How does it happen?
Cerebral palsy is most commonly the result of failure of a part of the brain to develop, either before birth or in early childhood. This is sometimes because of a blocked blood vessel, complications in labour, extreme prematurity or illness just after birth. Infections during pregnancy, or infancy and early childhood, eg meningitis or encephalitis, can also cause cp. Occasionally it is due to an inherited disorder; in such cases genetic counselling may be helpful.
It is sometimes possible to identify the cause of cp, but not always.
What are the effects?
The main effect of cp is difficulty in movement. Many people with cp are hardly affected, others have problems walking, feeding, talking or using their hands. Some people are unable to sit up without support and need constant enabling.
Sometimes other parts of the brain are also affected, resulting in sight, hearing, perception and learning difficulties. Between a quarter and a third of children and adolescents, and about a tenth of adults, are also affected by epilepsy.
People with cp often have difficulty controlling their movement and facial expressions. This does not necessarily mean that their mental abilities are in any way impaired. Some are of higher than average intelligence, other people with cp have moderate or severe learning difficulties. Most, like most people without cp, are of average intelligence.
Is there a cure?
No, but we do know that correct treatment from an early age can ease the effects of cp. Occasionally children who appear to have cp lose the signs as they get older. Most importantly, having a disability does not mean that someone cannot lead a full and independent life.
How prevalent is cerebral palsy?
Improvements in maternity services and neonatal care have meant that fewer babies develop cp as a result of lack of oxygen (from difficulties at birth) or jaundice, but they have also meant that more babies with very low birth weights survive. These babies are more likely to have cp.
In recent years there has been a slight increase in the proportion of children who have cp; currently about one in every 400 is affected. Among these, the percentage of severely and multiply disabled people needing Scope's support is growing. That need will continue throughout their lives.
A wealth of valuable information can be found at the SCOPE website: http://www.scope.org.uk/index.shtml