By | December 19, 2016

Cerebral palsy (CP) affects the lives of less than 1 percent of live births in the U.S., but specific prevalence estimates vary based on different degrees of severity, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In other words, the prevalence estimates have risen to one in 323 children, reflecting approximately 3.1 percent of 8-year-old children. ‘

Unfortunately, CP is often forgotten amid the intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) discussion. To better serve those with CP and reduce missed opportunities for intervention, you need to understand what it is, its symptoms and treatment measures to provide.


What Exactly Is Cerebral Palsy?

CP describes a group of neurological disorders that begin in infancy or early childhood, reports the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Most children with CP are born with it, but an official diagnosis may not be made until several months or years later in life.


Causes of CP

Unusual development of or injury to the motor-control center of the brain is responsible for CP. Historically, problems during gestation were commonly believed to cause CP, but researchers now understand the abnormal development of neural disuse may occur before, during or after birth. However, approximately 90 percent of those with CP experienced the abnormal development during gestation.


Different Types of CP

A diagnosis of CP is not as simple as it sounds. Physicians classify the CP diagnosis by what types of movement disorders may exist.

For example, a person with CP may experience stiff muscles, uncontrollable movements, poor balance or severely impaired mobility. In general, physicians classify CP into the following groups:

  • Spastic CP – Spastic CP impacts approximately 80 percent of those with the disability. Those in this group have increased muscle tone, creating stiffness. Thus, mobility may be difficult in one or more of the limbs. In some cases, such as severe spastic quadriplegia, stiffness may affect all limbs and restrict all mobility. Similarly, severe spastic CP may restrict the ability to move the neck or jaw, reducing the ability to communicate.
  • Dyskinetic CP – People with this type of CP may experience problems controlling the limbs, hands or feet, but these movements do not necessarily stay consistent. Muscle tone may change within hours, so the mobility depends on the specific degree of muscle tone present at any given time.
  • Ataxic CP –  This form of CP causes problems with balance and coordination, but those within this group of IDDs may have more mobility than others. However, fine motor movements, such as writing, may require advanced therapies.
  • Mixed CP – Anyone with CP may exhibit a combination of any form of the condition. When a specific set of criteria is not clearly exhibited, this classification may be given.

What Are the Warning Signs of CP?

Society tends to reflect on past experiences and use them to reduce likelihood of recurring negative aspects of life. Unfortunately, there is no cure for CP, but its overall impact can be lessened.

For example, early intervention enables caregivers and therapists to begin working to overcome the specific challenges presented when a person has CP.  Identifying the warning signs of CP vary by the age of the child. The following age-related behaviors may indicate a CP problem:

  • Signs of CP among the youngest infants include lagging head movements, stiff joints, uncontrollable movements, or overextension of the back or neck.
  • Babies older than six months may not roll over in either direction, bring the hands together, bring objects to their months or reach out with one hand.
  • Those older than 10 months may not crawl as expected, dragging one side of the body, or they may not crawl at all, scooting on the buttocks instead.

Recognizing the warning signs of CP is not the only battle parents, caregivers or therapists face. CDC estimates indicate that up to 41 percent of those affected by CP may also have a co-occurring epileptic disorder. Additionally, 6.9 percent of children with CP may suffer from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Consequently, direct caregivers must be cautious of all warning signs of autism, CP or epilepsy simultaneously.


How Is Cerebral Palsy Treated?

While there is no cure, treatment measures can help children overcome the challenges presented by CP. For example, continual physical therapy may help improve motor movements. However, additional treatment measures may include a combination of many different treatment approaches.


Early Intervention

Initial treatment begins with an initial assessment of motor capabilities as part of early intervention. This may include assessing a child’s physical strength and rigidity. Furthermore, creating a workable, acceptable treatment plan must be your top priority. In other words, the wide variety of symptoms or specific ataxias means any treatment program must be tailored to the unique needs of each child.

Families without ability to pay can still access intervention services as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Furthermore, the Center for Parent Information and Resources, created and operated by the Department of Education, can help parents identify resources available in their local areas for children with suspected cases of intellectual disability.


Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapies

There are many different types of therapies available, which include physical, speech and occupational therapy. Additionally, applied behavior analysis may be used to improve the neurological symptoms that may be present in those with co-occurring intellectual disabilities.



Medications may help alleviate the physical movements or stiffness associated with CP. However, many medications may have serious side effects, so medications may be considered a resort once all other options have failed.



Some might argue surgery would be a last resort when compared to taking medications. However, some surgeries can virtually eliminate all future need of medications, so surgery may be a preferable treatment option to relax muscle tone or stiffness permanently.


Orthotic Devices

Orthotic devices include any device used to reduce the uncontrollable movements or physical difficulties presented in CP, such as knee or leg brace to prevent falls or jerking. However, there is a new type of orthotic device that does not fit the mold of what is traditionally considered orthotics.

Mobile technology and mobile apps could be considered orthotic devices, especially those that enable children and people with CP to communicate more fully. In fact, implanted mobile orthotics that enhance nerve impulses to joints of the body could be a reality by 2020, explains a Business Wire Press Release. Furthermore, these solutions could be used to identify sudden changes to nerve impulses in children with CP.


Putting It All Together

Cerebral palsy is a developmental disability that can cause additional physical and mental health problems as it increases the risk for co-occurring intellectual disabilities. Rather than avoiding learning about cerebral palsy in your organization, you need to understand what it truly is and how today’s treatments are changing how the world views and treats those with this disability. In other words, treatments are progressing, and you can further the cause by spreading awareness of cerebral palsy in your organization.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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