Cerebral palsy is a developmental disability that results from damage to the young developing brain. The impairments associated with cerebral palsy are permanent and affect functional mobility such as movement and posture arising from paralysis and poor muscle control. Messages from the brain are sent to the muscles either early or late or uncoordinated or not at all. This often manifests itself to others as clumsiness and naturally impedes one’s normal life skills.
Some people with cerebral palsy may develop more control over their movement as they reach maturity. Symptoms are rarely identical between two individuals; one person may suffer minor motor skill coordination problems while another may be completely physically dependent. Nevertheless, in all cases it is possible to maximise function and minimise the disadvantages a person experiences as a consequence of cerebral palsy, creating new opportunities for greater participation in the workforce and enhanced life quality.
Unlike polio, cerebral palsy is not an infectious disease. Nor is it heritable from parents or passed onto children. Despite appearances, there is nothing actually wrong with the muscles. The problem is simply that the brain sends the wrong signals at the wrong time, causing either increased muscle tension (hypertonus) or reduced muscle tension (hypotonus). Sometimes this tension or ‘tone’ will fluctuate, causing greater or less symptoms at different times.
Cerebral palsy is usually caused by injury or changes to the brain during early development. This may be due to lack of oxygen or blood supply during an awkwardly protracted birth, a brain injury, maternal infection, early childhood illness or extreme premature birth. Every day in Australia, at least one child is born with cerebral palsy making it the most common childhood physical disability.
- Involuntary muscle movements
- Slurred speech or no speech
- Stiffness or paralysis
There are four main types of cerebral palsy, each caused by the specific area of the brain that is affected. The types are generally classified according to how the muscles function, but no two people share precisely the same disability.
- Spastic Cerebral Palsy is the most common type of cerebral palsy. Spasticity implies stiffness or tightness of one’s muscles. This is most obvious when the person attempts to move.
- Athetoid Cerebral Palsy is the term used for uncontrolled movements. This lack of control often leads to erratic movements when the child or adult begins to move.
- Ataxic Cerebral Palsy is the rarest type of cerebral palsy. Ataxia describes a lack of balance and coordination. It manifests itself as tremors. Difficulties with controlling the hand and arm during reaching (e.g. overshooting) and problems with the timing of motor movements are also experienced.
- Mixed Type Cerebral Palsy is when two or more types of cerebral palsy are present and no one type dominates.
Cerebral palsy can also be categorised according to the parts of the body it affects:
- Quadriplegia: affecting all four limbs and sometimes even the facial muscles.
- Paraplegia: both legs are affected, but neither arm is.
- Diplegia: legs are disproportionately affected more than the arms.
- Hemiplegia: one side of the body is affected.
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Experts may be required to provide opinion in cases involving cerebral palsy, for example, whether an obstetrician was negligent during a child’s birth that led to brain injury. Experts may also be involved with giving an opinion on cases involving a failure of diagnosis, what government and employer assistance may be required, and on standards of care in the medical field related to cerebral palsy.
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