Cerebral palsy (CP) is a term that covers a brain development disorder. It appears early in life as an influence on the brain’s control of movement and often results in lifelong challenges. These challenges are not necessarily only motor-related; they can also be cognitive and emotional in nature.
Cerebral palsy is a medical term. ‘Cerebral’ means ‘brain’, and ‘palsy’ means ‘paralysis’. Cerebral palsy was once referred to as ‘spastisk lammelse’ (spastic paralysis) in Danish. This term is being phased out, as it is not representative nor accurate of everyone with CP.
In Denmark, somewhere between 110-130 children are diagnosed with CP each year.
When and why do people get CP?
According to the definition of the diagnosis, it covers a period of time in which the disruption of brain development has occurred during pregnancy, delivery, or the first month of life of a child.
In most cases, this disruption to brain development is caused by something occurring to the fetus during pregnancy. The exact cause is rarely possible to determine, but it usually has to do with some issue with the flow of oxygen and other nutrition via the bloodstream to the fetal brain.
With regards to deliveries, CP is often caused by complications that result in the child’s brain being deprived of oxygen or the occurrence of bleeding or blood clots.
After the child has been born, CP is often caused by trauma, e.g. blows to the head, traffic accidents, brain infections or blood clots in the brain.
Regardless of the cause or time of the disruption, many of these children will require support and concrete interventions for the rest of their lives.
This disruption to brain development that is the cause of CP does not worsen with time, but adaptations and complications will potentially arise which will determine which challenges and possibilities the individual faces. Most commonly, there can arise secondary changes in muscles, tendons and joints that can lead to impaired mobility and joint deformities.
That is why early movement and activity stimulation is important. Knowledge about the brain’s ability and capacity to quite literally transform (referred to as neuroplasticity in research) means that the condition of CP can definitely improve.
What challenges do people with CP face?
The degree of motor function impairment varies considerably between individuals and can impact the person’s daily life to a varying extent. These motor challenges could, for instance, entail a lack of or reduced control over the body’s skeletal muscles and reduced muscle strength. This can lead to a decreased functional ability, manifesting itself as a change in posture, impaired gait, challenges writing, drawing, eating with a knife and fork, etc. These impaired motor functions can therefore include both fine and gross motor skills.
People with CP often have recurring patterns when it comes to so-called cognitive disabilities. These challenges especially manifest themselves in relation to concentration, simultaneous processing, structuring and maintaining an overview.
The importance of early identification
CP is usually diagnosed at a paediatric department following a neurological examination. About half of children with CP are identified before their first birthday, but minor developmental disruptions can result in the condition only being diagnosed in later years.
Internationally, there is a strong focus on diagnosing children with CP even earlier - ideally shortly after birth - in order to be able to more effectively help the child and their family. This is also true of the Elsass Foundation, where researchers work together with several of Denmark’s neonatal departments to develop and test methods for tracking down children and families who require support before the child reaches an age of three months.
Earlier detection of children with CP provides opportunities to commence training and activities at a time where the child’s motor skills and cognitive development can be decisively strengthened. This results in the child having far better opportunities to develop on par with other children and with the highest possible quality of life.