The pathophysiology of cerebral palsy begins before birth. The cause of cerebral palsy is typically a brain injury or abnormality that happens prenatally or during infancy. This disease causes problems with brain control of muscles, leading to difficulties with posture, muscle tone, and movement.
A child born prematurely or with a low birth weight is at a higher risk for cerebral palsy. Maternal illness is another risk factor, as are injuries or illnesses in the child's infancy.
Symptoms can vary greatly, but the condition is usually evident from a young age. Often, developmental delays in motor abilities are the first sign. A person affected by cerebral palsy may show problems with muscle tone, resulting in muscles that are too tight or too floppy. There may also be a lack of coordination, which can cause difficulty walking or a struggle with fine motor movements. Some children have difficulty with eating, sucking, and swallowing.
Brain damage, which is part of the pathophysiology of cerebral palsy, is not restricted to muscle control, and so people with this disorder will show deficits in other areas, such as language. There may also be problems with the senses, especially vision and hearing. Some people may suffer from mental retardation or seizures.
Maternal illnesses, especially infections, can lead to this condition, as can genetic mutations that affect the brain. A prenatal stroke that prevents blood flow to part of the brain can also cause cerebral palsy. Head injury in an infant, from a car accident, abuse, or a different trauma, is another possible cause.
Since the muscles can be too tense for long periods of time, the normally stretchy tissue can be replaced by tissue that doesn't stretch, called a contracture. This also causes the muscles to get shorter. Constant pressure on the joints from muscle tightness can cause osteoarthritis, which can be very painful. If a person with cerebral palsy has difficulty eating or swallowing, he or she may suffer from malnutrition. Cerebral palsy can severely interfere with a person’s ability to function normally, and so can lead to depression.
There is no known cure for cerebral palsy. If a person suffers from muscle spasms, certain medications can be used to keep them under control. Physical therapy to exercise and stretch the muscles can help a person walk normally and prevent contractures. If there are severe contractures or joint abnormalities, surgery may be necessary.