What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect motor and developmental skills. Over 10,000 children are diagnosed each year.

cerebral palsy

Cerebral Palsy Defined

Cerebral palsy affects normal movement in different parts of the body and has many degrees of severity. It causes problems with posture, gait, muscle tone, and coordination of movement.

The word “cerebral” refers to the brain’s cerebrum, which is the part of the brain that regulates motor function. “Palsy” describes the paralysis of voluntary movement in certain parts of the body.

Some children with cerebral palsy also have coexisting conditions, such as vision/hearing impairment, epilepsy, and autism. These disorders are caused by brain damage and are not a direct result of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy does not generally affect life expectancy. Depending on how the condition is managed, motor skills can improve or worsen over time. While symptoms and severity vary from case to case, most people diagnosed with this condition go on to lead a fulfilling life.

How Does Cerebral Palsy Affect the Body?

The brain controls all types of motor functions that allow people to live as independently as possible. Motor control can be voluntary, such as reaching out to shake someone’s hand. It can also be involuntary, such as the reflex when a doctor taps a spot just below a patient’s knee.

When the motor control centers in the brain are damaged, voluntary and involuntary motor skills do not function properly. This can present an array of challenges related to one’s ability to walk, talk or complete everyday tasks independently.

Facts and Statistics About Cerebral Palsy

  • Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Recent population-based studies from around the world report prevalence estimates of cerebral palsy ranging from 1 to nearly 4 per 1,000 live births or per 1,000 children.
  • About 1 in 345 children (3 per 1,000 8-year-old children) in the United States have been identified with cerebral palsy, according to 2010 estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
  • In 2010, 58.9% of children with cerebral palsy could walk independently, 7.8% walked using a hand-held mobility device, and 33.3% had limited or no walking ability.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the fetal or infant brain. Any damage within the first five years of life can prevent the brain from developing properly.

Damage to the parts of the brain that control motor function causes children with cerebral palsy to struggle with posture, balance, and movement. Developmental brain damage can cause issues with muscle tone and movement.

The first question many parents have following a recent cerebral palsy diagnosis is what could have caused their child’s brain injury.

Common causes of cerebral palsy include:

  • Bacterial and viral infections such as meningitis
  • Bleeding in the brain (hemorrhaging)
  • Head injuries sustained during birth or in the first few years of infancy
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain before, during or after birth (asphyxia)
  • Mercury poisoning from fish and toxoplasmosis from raw/undercooked meat
  • Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol

Not every case of cerebral palsy has a clear explanation. It’s estimated that 20%-50% of cases have unknown causes. Clinical trials are one technique being used to conduct further research on the potential causes of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral Palsy Caused by Birth Injuries

Some children develop cerebral palsy as the result of a birth injury caused by medical negligence. While rare, these cases are usually the product of a delivery room meltdown. Parents who suspect their child’s condition is due to medical negligence should take legal action.

A cerebral palsy lawyer can review the details of your case to determine if your child's cerebral palsy was caused by medical malpractice. It is essential to seek out an attorney specializing in birth injury cases caused by negligence.

Risk Factors For Developing Cerebral Palsy

Infants born prematurely are at a higher risk of developing cerebral palsy due to complications during birth. According to the CDC, the prevalence of cerebral palsy is higher for children born preterm or at low birthweight.

Some additional risk factors include:

  • Abnormal deliveries, such as a breech birth (feet first)
  • Maternal diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Poor maternal health

What Are The Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy?

The symptoms of cerebral palsy are different for every child. Some symptoms are hardly noticeable, while others are more intense. The severity of a child’s brain injury will ultimately determine the symptoms that develop.

One of the first signs parents should look for is whether their child is missing developmental milestones.

The most common signs of cerebral palsy are:

  • Contractures (shortening of muscles)
  • Delayed motor skill development
  • Difficulty with speech (dysarthria)
  • Drooling
  • Exaggerated or jerky reflexes
  • Floppy muscle tone
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Incontinence
  • Involuntary movements or tremors
  • Lack of coordination and balance
  • Problems swallowing or sucking
  • Problems with movement on one side of body
  • Seizures
  • Stiff muscles (spasticity)

Coexisting Conditions

Damage to the developing brain can cause an array of health complications in addition to cerebral palsy. There are several coexisting conditions that are prevalent alongside cerebral palsy.

Common conditions that may be present alongside cerebral palsy include:

Types of Cerebral Palsy

There are a few different types of cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is classified by the type and location of movement problems. There are also different levels of severity among each case of cerebral palsy.

The four main types are:

  • Spastic (70% of cases) — The most common type of cerebral palsy is known as spastic cerebral palsy. This is caused by damage to the brain’s motor cortex. Typical symptoms include stiff, exaggerated movements.
  • Athetoid/dyskinetic (10% of cases) — This type is caused by injury to the brain’s basal ganglia, which controls balance and coordination. Children with athetoid/dyskinetic cerebral palsy often exhibit involuntary tremors.
  • Ataxic (10% of cases) — Ataxic cerebral palsy is characterized by ataxia, or lack of coordination and balance. This is caused by damage to the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that connects to the spine.
  • Mixed (10% of cases) — Some cases of cerebral palsy are classified as mixed. This occurs when an individual exhibits symptoms of more than one type of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is also grouped by the severity or location of paralysis stemming from damage to the developing brain. This is described using the suffix “—plegia”, or paralysis, of one or more limbs.

The location of paralysis is described as:

  • Monoplegia – Paralysis of one limb
  • Diplegia/Paraplegia – Paralysis of two limbs, usually the legs
  • Hemiplegia – Paralysis on one side of the body
  • Quadriplegia – Paralysis of whole body (face, arms, legs, torso)
  • Double hemiplegia – Paralysis of whole body; used to distinguish those whose arms are more affected than their legs

These classifications illustrate how distinct each cerebral palsy diagnosis is. Each case of cerebral palsy can differ from another case.

How Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?

A cerebral palsy diagnosis usually takes place anywhere between 18 months and 5 years of age. Parents and caregivers are usually the first to notice abnormalities in a child’s development, which is one of the first signs of cerebral palsy. Doctors often hesitate to make an immediate diagnosis until further symptoms can be observed.

Several imaging tests used to diagnose cerebral palsy include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography scan (CT)
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Cranial ultrasound

It is important to see a cerebral palsy specialist if you suspect your child is showing developmental signs of cerebral palsy. A cerebral palsy specialist can conduct observational analysis and administer diagnostic tests. Once a diagnosis is made, parents can begin taking steps toward embracing a life with cerebral palsy.

Treatment For Cerebral Palsy

There is cerebral palsy treatment for early on in life, as well as lifelong management of cerebral palsy symptoms.

Early treatment for children with cerebral palsy is very important for brain development. There are more opportunities to correct or improve some of the child’s mobility limitations during this time.

Treatment is not focused on curing or fully correcting a child’s cerebral palsy. Rather, it is about nurturing a child’s development so they can live as independently as possible.

Many children with cerebral palsy are completely self-sufficient and have satisfying, meaningful lives. Actively treating the symptoms that coincide with cerebral palsy is the best way to ensure the highest quality of life for a child as they transition into adulthood.

Receiving treatment is the best way to ensure the highest quality of life for your child as they transition into adulthood. Children with cerebral palsy can improve motor skills with physical therapy, occupational therapy, assistive devices, medication, surgery, and more.

Parents should find a multidisciplinary team of specialists to treat their child's cerebral palsy.

The multidisciplinary team may include:

Download our free Cerebral Palsy Guide to learn more about cerebral palsy. Our guide includes in-depth information for children and parents of a child with cerebral palsy.

Birth Injury Support Team
kristin proctor registered nurseReviewed by:Kristin Proctor, RN

Registered Nurse (RN)

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kristin Proctor began her nursing career as a U.S. Army Nurse and has been a Registered Nurse (RN) more than 20 years. She has specialized experience in labor and delivery, as well as prenatal, antepartum, and postpartum care. Kristin uses this experience to educate and support families affected by birth injuries.

Cerebral Palsy Guide was founded upon the goal of educating families about cerebral palsy, raising awareness, and providing support for children, parents, and caregivers affected by the condition. Our easy-to-use website offers simple, straightforward information that provides families with medical and legal solutions. We are devoted to helping parents and children access the tools they need to live a life full of happiness

View Sources
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