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Cerebral Palsy


Overview :

Voluntary movement (walking, grasping, chewing, etc.) is primarily accomplished using muscles that are attached to bones, known as the skeletal muscles. Control of the skeletal muscles originates in the cerebral cortex, the largest portion of the brain. Palsy means paralysis, but may also be used to describe uncontrolled muscle movement. Therefore, cerebral palsy encompasses any disorder of abnormal movement and paralysis caused by abnormal function of the cerebral cortex. In truth, however, CP does not include conditions due to progressive disease or degeneration of the brain. For this reason, CP is also referred to as static (nonprogressive) encephalopathy (disease of the brain). Also excluded from CP are any disorders of muscle control that arise in the muscles themselves and/or in the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord).

CP is not a specific diagnosis, but is more accurately considered a description of a broad but defined group of neurological and physical problems.

The symptoms of CP and their severity are quite variable. Those with CP may have only minor difficulty with fine motor skills, such as grasping and manipulating items with their hands. A severe form of CP could involve significant muscle problems in all four limbs, mental retardation, seizures, and difficulties with vision, speech, and hearing.

Muscles that receive defective messages from the brain may be constantly contracted and tight (spastic), exhibit involuntary writhing movements (athetosis), or have difficulty with voluntary movement (dyskinesia). There can also be a lack of balance and coordination with unsteady movements (ataxia). A combination of any of these problems may also occur. Spastic CP and mixed CP constitute the majority of cases. Effects on the muscles can range from mild weakness or partial paralysis (paresis), to complete loss of voluntary control of a muscle or group of muscles (plegia). CP is also designated by the number of limbs affected. For instance, affected muscles in one limb is monoplegia, both arms or both legs is diplegia, both limbs on one side of the body is hemiplegia, and in all four limbs is quadriplegia. Muscles of the trunk, neck, and head may be affected as well.

CP can be caused by a number of different mechanisms at various times—from several weeks after conception, through birth, to early childhood. For many years, it was accepted that most cases of CP were due to brain injuries received during a traumatic birth, known as birth asphyxia. However, extensive research in the 1980s showed that only 5-10% of CP can be attributed to birth trauma. Other possible causes include abnormal development of the brain, prenatal factors that directly or indirectly damage neurons in the developing brain, premature birth, and brain injuries that occur in the first few years of life.

Advances in the medical care of premature infants in the last 20 years have dramatically increased the rate of survival of these fragile newborns. However, as gestational age at delivery and birth weight of a baby decrease, the risk for CP dramatically increases. A term pregnancy is delivered at 37-41 weeks gestation. The risk for CP in a preterm infant (32-37 weeks) is increased about five-fold over the risk for an infant born at term. Survivors of extremely preterm births (less than 28 weeks) face as much as a 50-fold increase in risk. About 50% of all cases of CP now being diagnosed are in children who were born prematurely.

Two factors are involved in the risk for CP associated with prematurity. First, premature babies are at higher risk for various CP-associated medical complications, such as intracerebral hemorrhage, infection, and difficulty in breathing, to name a few. Second, the onset of premature labor may be induced, in part, by complications that have already caused neurologic damage in the fetus. A combination of both factors almost certainly plays a role in some cases of CP. The tendency toward premature delivery runs in families, but the genetic mechanisms are far from clear.

An increase in multiple pregnancies in recent years, especially in the United States, is blamed on the increased use of fertility drugs. As the number of fetuses in a pregnancy increases, the risks for abnormal development and premature delivery also increase. Children from twin pregnancies have four times the risk of developing CP as children from singleton pregnancies, owing to the fact that more twin pregnancies are delivered prematurely. The risk for CP in a child of triplets is up to 18 times greater. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that a baby from a pregnancy in which its twin died before birth is at increased risk for CP.

Approximately 500,000 children and adults in the United States have CP, and it is newly diagnosed in about 6,000 infants and young children each year. The incidence of CP has not changed much in the last 20-30 years. Ironically, while advances in medicine have decreased the incidence from some causes—Rh disease for example—they have increased it from others, notably, prematurity and multiple pregnancies. No particular ethnic groups seem to be at higher risk for CP. However, people of disadvantaged back-ground are at higher risk due to poorer access to proper prenatal care and advanced medical services.




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