Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for many related neurological disorders that affect a person’s balance, posture, movement, and muscle control. Cerebral palsy is typically diagnosed early in a person’s life, when, as an infant or toddler, they are slow to reach developmental milestones such as rolling over, tripod sitting, cruising, and standing unaided. Sometimes the disorder is not apparent until the child is fully walking, and their walk involves an unusual gait or posture.

There are many different types of cerebral palsy. All types share an inability to control and coordinate muscles, and so the most apparent and common symptoms of cerebral palsy are poor muscle tone (hypotonia), muscle spasticity, or muscle stiffness (hypertonia). Many of the other problems, such as difficulty sitting or standing, arise from those muscle problems.

Different infants develop at different rates, and many children deprived of oxygen at birth nonetheless grow into asymptomatic adults, just on a delayed timetable. In the first year of life, a brain damaged baby may show some or all of the following signs that could indicate they may have Cerebral Palsy:

  • Poor sucking
  • Poor suck and swallow
  • Poor feeding
  • Decreased muscle tone or floppiness
  • Trembling or shaking of arms or legs
  • Exaggerated startle reflex
  • Seizures
  • Body twitches
  • Abnormal posture
  • Tight, clenched fists or toes
  • Favoring one side of the body
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Poor head control or head lag
  • Strabismus or crossed eyes
  • Inability to sit up unassisted by 8 months
  • Pointing toes

In severe cases of cerebral palsy, some of these symptoms are present at birth.  Most children with CP are diagnosed before their second birthday, but if the cerebral palsy symptoms are mild, a clear diagnosis might not be made for another two or three years while the pediatrician waits to see the full course of the child’s development.

When a pediatrician, neurologist or doctor see that a child has developmental delays or other neurological problems, they may order additional testing such as a head ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRI’s) to rule out other brain abnormalities that could cause the same symptoms as cerebral palsy.  If the child does have CP, the MRI will help show the doctor exactly where the baby’s brain damage is located and how much of the baby’s brain is damaged.  The earlier the diagnosis of CP is made, the sooner the brain damaged infant can start receiving the necessary physical therapy, occupational therapy and medical treatments to maximize their level of functioning.

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