Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability in children.

Cerebral palsy affects more than 20,000 people Australia-wide.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move. It is generally caused by complications that result in damage to the brain during pregnancy or shortly after birth.

Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition that does not get worse over time. Early intervention and treatment can reduce the severity of the effects of the disability.

Cerebral palsy affects people in a variety of ways, mainly impacting their body movement, posture, muscle control and coordination, muscle tone, reflexes and balance. A person with cerebral palsy may also have visual, learning, hearing, speech, epilepsy and intellectual disabilities.

This disability can range widely in severity. Some people may have mild weakness and lack of muscle control, whereas others may require 24-hour support.

Causes of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a condition caused by damage to the developing brain during pregnancy or shortly after birth, or sometimes during early childhood. There is no known cure.

For most people with cerebral palsy, the precise cause of their condition is unknown. It can be a result of diminished blood supply and lack of oxygen to areas of the brain, causing damage to cells. Damage to the developing brain may also be caused by illness, such as rubella during pregnancy, childhood meningitis or accidental injury.

Signs in childhood

The following signs in early childhood may be indications of cerebral palsy:

  • Feeding and swallowing difficulties
  • Low coordination and muscle control
  • Muscle spasms
  • Delayed development

Types of cerebral palsy

There are four main types of cerebral palsy:

  • Spastic cerebral palsy – The most common type of cerebral palsy. ‘Spasticity’ means stiffness or tightness of muscles, which is most obvious when a person tries to move.
  • Athetoid cerebral palsy – ‘Athetosis’ means uncontrolled movements, which often lead to erratic movements.
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy – The least common type of cerebral palsy. ‘Ataxia’ means a lack of balance and coordination. It often presents as unsteady, shaky movements called tremors.
  • Mixed type cerebral palsy – May involve a combination of types of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy can be categorised into four main areas, according to the parts of the body it affects:

  • Quadriplegia – All four limbs are affected and the muscles of the face and mouth may also be affected
  • Diplegia – All four limbs are affected, but the legs more so than arms
  • Hemiplegia – One side of the body is affected
  • Paraplegia – Both legs, but neither of the arms, are affected