Maybe someone at your school has cerebral palsy — or perhaps you have it and you’ve been dealing with it your whole life. As we become more aware of appearance and body image, it can be tough to be in a wheelchair or to have people tease you about the way you walk. But lots of teens with CP don’t let it hold them back. They do just what everyone else does.
What Is Cerebral Palsy?
Cerebral palsy (CP for short) is a disorder of the brain. Normally, the brain tells the rest of the body exactly what to do and when to do it. Because of how CP affects the brain, a person might not be able to walk, talk, eat, or move the way most people do.
CP affects a person’s muscle tone and ability to coordinate body movements. People with CP have trouble controlling their muscles. How a person is affected all depends on what part of the brain is involved.
How Does Cerebral Palsy Affect People?
The three types of cerebral palsy are:
- Spastic (pronounced: spass-tick) CP is the most common type of CP. People with spastic CP can’t relax their muscles or the muscles may be stiff.
- Athetoid (pronounced: ath-uh-toid) CP affects the ability to control the muscles of the body. A person’s arms or legs may flutter and move suddenly.
- Ataxic (pronounced: ay-tak-sick). People with ataxic CP have problems with balance and coordination. Their movements may seem shaky.
People with CP can have mild cases or more severe cases. It all depends on how much of the brain is affected and which parts of the body that section of the brain controls. If CP affects both arms and both legs, a person might need to use a wheelchair. If CP only affects the legs, someone may walk in an unsteady way or have to wear braces or use crutches.
If CP affects the part of the brain that controls speech, a person with CP might have trouble talking clearly or not be able to speak at all.
Because cerebral palsy affects muscle control, some people have learning disabilities or behavior problems — though many people with CP don’t have these issues. Other people with CP also have medical problems like seizures or epilepsy, or hearing impairment.
What Causes It?
In most cases, doctors don’t know exactly what causes CP. They do know that it’s the result of damage to the brain — either while a baby is in the womb or in the first few months or years after the baby is born.
Babies have a higher chance of having CP if they are born early or if they’re very underweight at birth. Babies who don’t get enough oxygen during or right after birth also have a higher chance of having CP. So do babies who need to be on a ventilator (a machine to help with breathing) for several weeks or more after birth.
CP is not contagious, so people can’t catch it from other people. Even a mother with CP can’t pass it on to her unborn baby.
What Do Doctors Do?
Doctors diagnose CP when kids are young, so by the time people reach their teens, they usually know they have CP and are used to living with it.
With CP, the problem with the brain will not get any worse as people get older. For example, someone who has CP that affects only the legs won’t develop CP in the arms or have problems with speech later on.
Although CP doesn’t get progressively worse, how it affects a person’s body can change as the person grows or develops. For example, some teens with CP may develop dislocated hips (when the bones that meet at the hips move out of their normal position) or scoliosis (curvature of the spine).
Because CP affects people differently, there are lots of ways to treat and manage it. Some teens have only mild problems with movement. Others need crutches or wheelchairs to get around. Doctors, parents, teachers, therapists, and the person with CP all work together to develop the best treatment plan.
Teens with CP may work with these experts:
- a pediatric orthopedist
- a developmental pediatrician who looks at how the person is growing or developing compared with other teens
- a pediatric physiatrist (or rehabilitation physician), who helps kids with disabilities of many kinds
- therapists, like physical therapists to help with movement, occupational therapists to help with skills like handwriting, and speech therapists
Some teens with CP take medicines to relax their muscles (in the case of spastic CP) or to help control seizures. And some might have special surgeries to keep their arms or legs straighter and more flexible.
Coping With Cerebral Palsy
Puberty can be especially challenging for people with CP. Rapid growth can cause weight gain and clumsiness in any teen, but can make it even more difficult for someone with CP to move around. A person’s muscles can become tighter as the bones grow, which can restrict movement even more.
If you have CP, what you’ll do depends on your CP. One thing you can do is to get more involved in your medical care wherever possible. Keep up with your appointments, including any physical or other therapy visits. This is a time when your medical team will want to keep an eye on you and adapt your treatment or therapy as you grow.
Many guys and girls with CP can do the same sorts of things that other teens do, like enjoying extracurricular activities, listening to or playing music, hanging out with friends, reading, going to the mall, and dating, to name just a few.
Helping a Friend Who Has CP
If you know someone who has CP and you’re wondering how to help, just treat that person the way you would anyone else. Some people with CP might need extra assistance once in a while, like when reaching for something. Help out — just as you would with anyone else — without making a big deal about it. If you can’t understand what a person with CP is saying or if it takes longer to do things, give him or her extra time to speak or move.
And don’t be afraid to talk to a friend about what it’s like to live with CP. Everyone wants to fit in, and being in a wheelchair or having other physical problems can make someone self-conscious or feel left out. So if you know someone with CP, try to be welcoming and include him or her in what you’re doing.
Reviewed by: Steven J. Bachrach, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012