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History of Cerebral Palsy

The first documented history of cerebral palsy dates back to the 1860’s. It was when an English surgeon named William Little came across a puzzling condition that affected young children. He wrote the first medical descriptions detailing a disorder that caused stiff, spastic muscles in their legs, as well as slightly in their arms. It was more difficult for these children to accomplish tasks that other children found rather easy, such as grasping objects, crawling, and walking. Oddly enough, there conditions did not change, for better or worse, as they got older. What was originally named Little’s disease is now known as spastic diplegia cerebral palsy. Today, it is grouped along with several other disorders that affect control movement due to developmental brain injury known as cerebral palsy.

Without knowing if there was indeed a history of cerebral palsy in the child’s family, Little didn’t have much evidence as to the cause. Little found that most of these children were born following premature or complicated deliveries. He reasoned that extended time in the birth canal resulted in a lack of oxygen, causing their condition. Little felt that this oxygen shortage damaged sensitive brain tissues responsible for controlling movement.

It wasn’t until 1897 that Little’s theory would be challenged and the history of cerebral palsy would be changed. Sigmund Freud, world famous psychiatrist, disagreed with William Little saying that children with cerebral palsy were subject to other problems such as mental retardation, visual disturbances, and seizures. Freud believed that the condition might stem back earlier in life, during the brain’s development in the womb. Freud suggested that difficult birth was merely a symptom of deeper issues that influence fetal development.

Freud’s observations were not highly regarded, as the belief that birth complications caused most cases of cerebral palsy remained popular among families, physicians, and even medical researchers up until two decades ago. During a government study conducted in the 1980’s, scientists analyzed massive amounts of data covering over 35,000 births. They found that birth complications accounted for only a fraction of cases, about 20 percent, while 10 percent occurred after birth.

These findings have drastically altered medical theories regarding the history of cerebral palsy and prompting researchers to explore alternative causes. The incidence of cerebral palsy has risen over the years with the increasing success of medical intervention in keeping premature and low birth weight babies alive.

Where does the future lay for cerebral palsy? Although the number of cerebral palsy diagnosis will probably continue to grow, through new research and treatments medical scientists are hoping to alleviate and reduce symptoms of cerebral palsy.

The reality of a cure for cerebral palsy is far off, for now, as we don’t always know the cause of it. However, with the cooperation of families, friends, doctors, and scientists the reduction of cerebral palsy cases may be in our future.

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