What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a blanket term for several disorders that affect normal, healthy movement. Over 10,000 children are diagnosed each year.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral Palsy Defined

Cerebral palsy (commonly referred to as CP) is a group of disorders that affects normal movement in different parts of the body and has many degrees of severity. CP a very common pediatric condition.

Cerebral palsy affects posture, gait, muscle control 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 CP also have coexisting conditions, such as vision problems, hearing loss, and intellectual disabilities. These disorders are often caused by brain damage or brain development abnormalities in the same way that cerebral palsy can be caused.

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

How Does CP Affect the Body?

The brain controls all types of motor functions. 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 on CP

  • Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood physical disability. Recent estimates conclude that nearly 764,000 people in the U.S. have CP.
  • There are 4 main types of cerebral palsy: Spastic, Athetoid/Dyskinetic, Ataxic and Mixed. Spastic CP is the most common, making up about 70% of cases.
  • CP is a non-progressive disorder, meaning it will not get worse over time. Most cases can be effectively managed with treatment and continued care.
  • 2 in 3 people with cerebral palsy can walk. While some children with CP require mobility aids, many are able to walk independently.
  • 3 in 4 people with CP are able to verbally communicate. Oftentimes, assistive devices are used to help improve speech and hearing.
  • There is no known cure for cerebral palsyFortunately, there are many treatments that can help both children and adults with CP live a full life.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the fetal or infant brain. It occurs when there is neurological damage before, during, or within five years of birth that prevents the brain from developing properly.

Damage to the parts of the brain that control motor function causes children with CP to struggle with posture, balance and movement. Although this disability affects muscle tone and movement, it isn’t caused by problems with the actual muscles or nerves — it is strictly the result of developmental brain damage.

The first question many parents have following a recent CP diagnosis is what could have caused their child’s brain injury. This can sometimes be discovered when parents work with a team of doctors and specialists in order to conclude which factors may have contributed to their child’s condition.

Common causes of CP include:

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

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

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 breakdown in procedure during labor or delivery. Parents who suspect their child’s condition is due to negligence on the part of the doctors, nurses or hospital facility may wish to pursue a free legal case review.

A cerebral palsy lawyer can evaluate the details of your case in order to determine if there is enough evidence to suggest medical neglect or malpractice took place. For parents who are considering filing for a case evaluation, it is essential to seek out an attorney specializing in birth injury cases caused by negligence.

Risk Factors For Developing CP

Infants born prematurely are at a higher risk of developing cerebral palsy because of the complications that arise in these births, such as bleeding in the brain. Estimates show that 10 to 30 percent of people with cerebral palsy were born prematurely. A low birth weight can also increase the chances of developing CP.

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 CP?

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 that raises the alarm for developmental issues is whether their child is meeting – or missing – any important developmental milestones.

The most common signs of cerebral palsy are:

  • Problems with movement on one side of body
  • Floppy or stiff muscles
  • Exaggerated or jerky reflexes
  • Involuntary movements or tremors
  • Lack of coordination and balance
  • Drooling
  • Problems swallowing or sucking
  • Difficulty with speech (dysarthria)
  • Seizures
  • Contractures (shortening of muscles)
  • Developmental delays (in both mental function and motor skills)
  • Incontinence
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Coexisting Conditions

Damage to the developing brain can cause an array of health complications, in addition to CP. There are a number of coexisting conditions that occur more frequently among those with cerebral palsy when compared to the general population.

Common conditions that may be present alongside cerebral palsy include:

Types of Cerebral Palsy

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

The 4 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. Spasticity leads to stiff, exaggerated movements.
  • Athetoid/dyskinetic (10%) — This type is caused by injury to the brain’s cerebellum and basal ganglia, which controls balance and coordination. Children with athetoid/dyskinetic cerebral palsy often exhibit involuntary tremors.
  • Ataxic (10%) — Ataxic cerebral palsy is characterized by 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. Ataxia may also impair a person’s speech.
  • Mixed (10%) — Some cases of cerebral palsy are classified as Mixed. This occurs when an individual exhibits symptoms of more than one type of CP or multiple motor control centers in the brain have been injured.

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 the whole body (face, arms, legs, torso)
  • Double hemiplegia – Paralysis of the whole body; used to distinguish those whose arms are more affected than their legs

These classifications illustrate how distinct each cerebral palsy diagnosis is. One person may be diagnosed with spastic diplegia, for instance, while another is diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia.

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 delays in a child’s development, which is one of the first signs of cerebral palsy. However, every child develops at his or her own pace, so doctors often hesitate to make an immediate diagnosis until further symptoms can be observed.

Several imaging tests may be used to diagnose cerebral palsy, including:

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

If you’re concerned that your child is showing developmental signs of cerebral palsy, parents can seek out a CP specialist who can conduct observational analysis and administer diagnostic tests. Once a diagnosis is received, parents can begin taking steps toward embracing a life with CP.

Treatment For Cerebral Palsy

Treatment for CP is twofold — there is treatment early in life and lifelong management.

Early treatment for children with cerebral palsy is important because the developing brain and body are more resilient. This means that there are more opportunities to correct or improve some of the child’s mobility limitations during this time.

Treatment isn’t focused on curing or fully correcting a child’s CP. Rather, it’s about nurturing a child’s development so they can live as independently as possible. Many children with cerebral palsy are self-sufficient and have satisfying, meaningful lives. Actively treating the symptoms that coincide with CP is the best way to ensure the highest quality of life as a child transitions into adulthood.

Children with cerebral palsy can improve their motor skills with the help of traditional and alternative therapy, medication, surgery, and more. Parents are encouraged to seek out a multidisciplinary team of specialists to effectively treat their child’s condition.

The multidisciplinary team may include:

To learn more about the condition of cerebral palsy and various treatment options, try downloading our free Cerebral Palsy Guide, which includes over 60 pages of in-depth information for children and parents of a child with CP.

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
  1. Marion Stanton. "Understanding Cerebral Palsy: A Guide for Parents and Professionals." Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia. 2012.
  2. Freeman Miller, M.D. and Steven J. Bachrach, M.D. "Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving 2nd ed." The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, MD. 2006.
  3. "Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Parent’s Guide 2nd ed." Edited by Elaine Geralis. Chapter 1: What is Cerebral Palsy? by Dr. Elliot S. Gersh. Chapter 3: Medical Concerns and Treatment by Dr. Gersh. Woodbine House, Inc. Bethesda, MD. 1998.
  4. "Facts About Cerebral Palsy." Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation. 28 Feb. 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: http://cpirf.org/facts-about-cerebral-palsy/ .
  5. "Facts About Cerebral Palsy." Centers for Disease Control. 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html.
  6. "Data and Statistics on Cerebral Palsy." Centers for Disease Control. 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/data.html.
  7. "NINDS Cerebral Palsy Information Page." Cerebral Palsy Information Page: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Web. 27 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/cerebral_palsy/cerebral_palsy.htm.
  8. "Cerebral Palsy - Definition." Mayo Clinic. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cerebral-palsy/basics/definition/con-20030502
  9. "Health-Related Fitness for Children and Adults with Cerebral Palsy." American College of Sports Medicine. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/health-relatedfitnessforcawithcp.pdf
  10. http://ucp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/cp-fact-sheet.pdf
Back to Top