What is Cerebral Palsy?

by Teresa Rohmer

from ABILITY's Laura San Giacomo Issue, 2001

Laura San Giacomo’s personal story of mothering a child with cerebral palsy serves as a reminder to us all that the impact of having a loved one with a disability is a non-discriminatory experience which can occur in any family. Cerebral palsy (CP) itself is a broad term describing mobility-impairing conditions which affect individuals to varying degrees. Some persons may have difficulty with fine motor tasks, including writing or cutting with scissors, while others experience trouble in maintaining balance when walking, or will be affected by involuntary movements such as drooling. While the definition of cerebral palsy describes a physical or mobility impairment alone, some may be challenged with other disorders as well. Epilepsy, for example, is common in those who have CP.

In the worst-case scenario, a child with severe cerebal palsy might be unable to walk, sit up or speak and would require extensive, lifelong care. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a child who is mildly affected may walk with only minimal balance difficulties and require no special assistance. In medical terms, CP is divided into four categories: spastic, athetoid, ataxic and mixed forms. The definition is determined by the kind of movement impairment involved.

Spastic CP, affecting 70 to 80 percent of all patients, occurs when the muscles are permanently contracted, impairing the movement of one’s limbs. Athetoid CP involves abnormal movement in the hands, feet or legs. In some cases the muscles of the face and tongue are affected, causing drooling that is difficult or impossible to control. This form affects approximately 10 to 20 percent of patients.

Ataxic CP, a rare form, affects balance in walking and coordination. Patients who are affected walk unsteadily, place their feet unusually far apart, and can have difficulty in fine-motor tasks, including writing or buttoning a shirt. Slight involuntary muscle jerks, which cause a trembling effect, are also common.

In mixed-form CP, it is typical for patients to have symptoms of one or more of the three previously-mentioned types. The most common mixed-form includes spasticity and athetoid movements, but other forms are also possible.

While the signs of CP generally become evident before a child turns three, the symptoms are lifelong and there is no known cure at the present time. It is hoped that emerging techniques such as stem cell therapy will prove beneficial.

Various conventional approaches are utilized to help the patient better manage the condition. Physical, occupational and speech therapies are commonly used. Medication can often control seizures, surgeries are performed to increase or enhance one's mobility range, and one-to-one counseling explores viable options to help the person cope with the disability.