Cerebral palsy is not a new disorder. There have probably been children with cerebral palsy as long as there have been children. But the medical profession did not begin to study cerebral palsy as a distinct medical condition until 1861. In that year, an English orthopedic surgeon, Dr. William John Little, published the first paper describing the neurological problems of children with spastic diplegia. Spastic diplegia is still sometimes called Little’s Disease. This was a disorder that struck children in the first years of life, characterized by stiff, spastic muscles in their arms and legs. These children had difficulty grasping objects, crawling, and walking. They did not show signs of improvement with age, nor did they become any worse.
The term cerebral palsy came into use in the late 1800′s. Sir William Osler, a British medical doctor, is believed to have coined the term. Dr. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist better known for his work in psychiatry, published some of the earliest medical papers on cerebral palsy. In the early years, Dr. Little believed most cases of cerebral palsy were caused by obstetrical complications at birth. He suggested that children born with cerebral palsy were born following complicated deliveries, and that their condition was a result of lack of oxygen to the brain. He said this oxygen shortage damaged sensitive brain tissues controlling movement. But in the late 1800′s, Freud disagreed. Noting that children with cerebral palsy often had other problems such as mental retardation, visual disturbances, and seizures, Freud suggested that the disorder might be caused earlier in life, during the brain’s development in the womb.
Despite Freud’s research on cerebral palsy, the belief that birth complications accounted for most cases was widespread among doctors, families, and even medical researchers. In the 1980′s, scientists analyzed extensive data from a government study of more than 35,000 births. While they found that birth trauma was the cause of thousands of cerebral palsy cases, no cause could be found in the majority of cases. This has influenced researchers to explore other causes, and look at medical theories about cerebral palsy more closely.
Fortunately, in the past few decades, information on the many facets of cerebral palsy has significantly increased. Today, the medical community has great interest in studying cerebral palsy to determine its causes and the most effective ways to treat it. As knowledge and treatment techniques have expanded and improved, so too have the prospects of all children with cerebral palsy.