17 June 2011

So what’s the difference between cerebral palsy, brain injury and stroke?

By Natan Gendelman | http://www.enabledkids.ca

Cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and pediatric stroke are often brought together under the same treatment processes and types of rehabilitation. It is common knowledge for many people who work with kids that the approach to take is often quite similar between the three conditions. However, after working with and observing children who have cerebral palsy, brain injury or pediatric stroke, personally I would disagree with this method and viewpoint. In my opinion, there are many reasons why treatment for each condition should be distinct, and the first thing I would like to examine is what makes each condition different from the next.

Comparing terms

To start with, cerebral palsy can be generalized as a condition that a child is born with. The degree of severity of his condition will depend on how severely the brain is affected, and--by following a chain reaction--on the stages of development he has missed. This will lead to impairment as he grows older if the appropriate function is not gained. Children who have cerebral palsy cannot move through the stages of development because they are not acquiring skills in the normal developmental process. In most cases, a child is taken through his individual milestones by the nervous system. For a child with cerebral palsy however, this progression is absent and this normal development does not exist. Therefore, the skills have to be acquired first, and then repeated until they become automatic. This means that when we work with a child with CP, there is no re-gaining of skills, only learning from scratch. These are things that a child will then apply in his daily life, to become a part of his everyday function.

In contrast, traumatic brain injury and pediatric stroke can be seen as having totally different circumstances. Although it will depend on when these injuries occur, often a child with either one of these conditions would have already gone through at least some of the stages of development. This means that he would have already learned and acquired certain skills before the injury. When dealing with a child in one of these situations (and again, depending on his specific age, severity of condition and other factors), treatment will involve rehabilitation--that is, the re-gaining of movement and function which has been lost because of brain damage. This is what sets conditions such as TBI and pediatric stroke apart from cerebral palsy, and is something that should be accounted for in treatment.

Learning vs. regaining skills in treatment

When working with a child that has cerebral palsy, we need to remember that the child will not be regaining skills; he will be learning ones that he has never had before. Therefore, he has to be taught from A-Z what everything stands for, the individual body parts, the way they move, and how normal function should be. In contrast, a child with a brain injury or who has experienced pediatric stroke will need to focus on this idea of regaining skills, which means we are acquiring skills that take place before the injury has occurred. It is for these reasons that the approach to treatment will need to be completely different for a child with cerebral palsy. Rather than following the same steps that patients follow for the other conditions, the child will need to be shown how to turn, roll over, and be able to build on those skills before moving onto the next step.

As a result, a child’s treatment should differ according to how the child gains valuable life function. The methods of learning for kids with brain injury or stroke should not be the same as those for children with cerebral palsy. We take this approach in my clinic’s specialized treatment program called LIFE, and that is why we call our program an education / rehabilitation system rather than one or the other--the approach will change depending on the child’s needs. Here, we teach kids how to acquire these functions, how to do them, and why. If a child does not understand, we repeat them again and again and again under the child begins to follow. By paying attention to a child’s personality and characteristics as well as to his learning and specific condition, the treatment process becomes much more successful and fulfilling for those involved. It is for this reason that I think treatment for children under each category should be approached with regards to the condition itself.

Of course, whether dealing with kids that have cerebral palsy, pediatric stroke or brain injury, the bottom line is the same: the patient must be the one to work harder than the therapist. That’s the reason why at our clinic, we try have a child do everything he has been taught by himself. In the end, the ultimate goal of treatment is to have a child learn to do things independently. By distinguishing each of these conditions, I hope that more parents, caregivers and therapists will learn from and experience success with their child as he learns and discovers the joys, wonders and surprises held by the world around him.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment down below or email me at natan@enabledkids.ca. Thanks everyone!


  1. My daughters situation is a little different. She was born a healthy little girl at 38 weeks. At 2½ months she had a severe reflux attack and aspirated on her milk causing her to lose oxygen. She is diagnosed with both cerebral palsy and severe brain injury due to hypoxia. Because this happened at such an early age, she did not have any 'learned' skills to 'retrain'. She is now just over 2 years old but developmentally she is about 5 months.

  2. Thank you for your comment. No matter what, your daughter’s brain will have to be stimulated constantly. This is the only way that you will be able to make progress and teach her to be functionally independent.

    If you have any questions, feel free to email me at natan@enabledkids.ca. I look forward to hearing from you!