For many people, the word stroke conjures images of middle-aged smokers, prime rib devotees, or other people who routinely ignore the risk factors commonly associated with this potentially life threatening condition. However, strokes also occur in children.
According to the Children’s Hemiplegia and Stroke Association, CHASA, strokes occur at the highest rate among infants one month of age or younger and are fatal in 20% to 40% of cases.
Childhood Stroke Risk Factors
Over 100 childhood stroke risk factors have been identified, such as sickle cell disease, infections (including chicken pox) and metabolic disorders. However, in one third of infants and one tenth of children, no cause is ever found.
The Symptoms of Childhood Stroke
The symptoms of childhood stroke may include:
- delay in reaching expected developmental milestones such as sitting up, rolling over, crawling, or smiling
- difficulty with fine motor tasks like writing
- stiffness and weakness in muscles on one side of the body
- difficulty with walking and balance
- IQ below 70 (about one-third of childhood stroke victims)
Progression of Childhood Stroke
It is important to note that childhood stroke is not a progressive disease. The damage is done when the stroke occurs. However, as the child grows and the brain matures, different symptoms may present themselves as a result of the same stroke.
Childhood Stroke is Misdiagnosed
When an adult has a stroke, the symptoms, more often than not, are immediately apparent. The injury caused by the stroke on the fully developed adult brain causes problems with motor function, speech or vision. In the case of an infant, the brain hasn’t developed enough for symptoms to become apparent. As a result, strokes are routinely misdiagnosed in infants and children.
For example, the child’s inability to use an arm or hand due to the stroke is often incorrectly attributed to normal hand preference. Delays in crawling and walking are wrongly attributed to late achievement of those developmental milestones. Other normal cognitive functions that are affected can be attributed to developmental delays.
Treatment for Childhood Stroke
Once childhood stroke is detected there are a number of options available to aid a child’s development. Children three years or older are eligible for Public School Intervention with an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This will usually supplement their education with services such as:
- occupational therapy
- speech therapy
- sensory therapy
- physical therapy (possibly)
Early intervention programs are available for newborns to children aged three. These programs often provide the same services as the public school intervention programs, but early intervention programs vary widely from area to area. They should be researched for the services they provide.
Medical treatments are also available for childhood stroke such as surgeries to relieve movement impairments. Research is also currently being done on the use of stems cells in treating cerebral palsy that results from childhood stroke.
Awareness of Childhood Stroke
Despite the fact that stroke occurs with the same frequency as brain tumors in children, research on childhood stroke is severely underfunded. The support network for parents of children who’ve suffered strokes is relatively small, but they work tirelessly to raise awareness.