Cerebral palsy (CP) is a problem that affects muscle tone, movement, and coordination. It happens when the brain can’t properly send messages to muscles about how to move in smooth or well-coordinated ways.
CP can also affect other body functions that involve motor skills and muscles, like breathing, bladder and bowel control, eating, and talking.
There are different types of CP. Some people have one type, or a mix of:
Spastic (pronounced: SPASS-tik). This is the most common type of CP. It causes stiffness and trouble moving.
Athetoid (pronounced: ATH-uh-toid) CP affects the ability to control the muscles of the body. A person may have uncontrolled movements.
Ataxic (pronounced: ay-TAK-sik). This type causes a problem with balance and depth perception (judging the distance between two objects).
What Problems Does CP Cause?
People with CP can have mild cases or more severe cases. It depends on how much the brain was damaged. The damage can be partial, for example, affecting only the part of the brain that controls walking. Or it can affect a larger area, like the parts that control walking, talking, and understanding speech.
If CP affects the part of the brain that controls speech, a person with CP might have trouble talking clearly or not be able to speak at all. Some people with CP also have learning disabilities or behavior problems, though many don't have these issues. Others can have medical problems like seizures or epilepsy, or hearing loss.
Cerebral palsy does not get worse over time. But how it affects someone's body can change as the person grows or develops. For example, some teens with CP may develop dislocated hips (when the bones that meet at the hips move out of their normal position) or scoliosis (curved spine).
What Causes CP?
The cause of CP isn't always known. Often, it can happen when a child's brain is still developing, such as before birth or in early infancy. This may be due to infections or other medical problems during pregnancy, a stroke either in the womb or after birth, a problem during the birth, genetic disorders, and other things.
Babies have a higher chance of having CP if they are born early or if they're very underweight at birth. Babies who don't get enough oxygen during or right after birth also have a higher chance of having CP. So do babies who need to be on a ventilator (a machine to help with breathing) for several weeks or more after birth.
How Is CP Treated?
Because CP affects people differently, there are lots of ways to treat and manage it. Some teens have only mild problems with movement. Others need crutches or wheelchairs to get around. Doctors, parents, teachers, therapists, and the person with CP all work together to develop the best treatment plan.
Teens with CP may work with these experts:
a developmental pediatrician who looks at how the person is growing or developing compared with other teens
a pediatric physiatrist (or rehabilitation physician), who helps kids with disabilities of many kinds
therapists, like physical therapists to help with movement, occupational therapists to help with skills like handwriting, and speech therapists
Some teens with CP take medicines to relax their muscles (in the case of spastic CP) or to help control seizures. And some might have special surgeries to keep their arms or legs straighter and more flexible. Surgery also can help fix dislocated hips and scoliosis. Leg braces help with walking.
Eating a diet that's high in calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus can improve bone health and help keep bones strong.
Life With Cerebral Palsy
During puberty, rapid growth can cause weight gain and clumsiness in any teen, but can make it even harder for someone with CP to move around. Their muscles can become tighter as the bones grow, which can restrict movement even more.
If you have CP, one thing to do is to get more involved in your medical care wherever possible. Keep up with your appointments, including any PT or other therapy visits. This is a time when your medical team will want to keep an eye on you and adapt your treatment or therapy as you grow.
Helping a Friend Who Has CP
If a friend has CP and you're wondering how to help, just treat that person as you would anyone else. Some people with CP might need extra assistance once in a while, like when reaching for something. Help without making a big deal about it. If you can't understand what a person with CP is saying or if it takes them longer to do things, give them extra time to speak or move.
And don't be afraid to talk to a friend about what it's like to live with CP. Everyone wants to fit in, and being in a wheelchair or having other physical problems can make someone self-conscious or feel left out. So be welcoming and include them in what you're doing.