Cerebral palsy causes

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain before, during, or shortly after birth. There are multiple types of brain damage that can lead to several different forms of cerebral palsy. Learn more about cerebral palsy by downloading our free guide.

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About 70% of cases of cerebral palsy results from a birth injury. Was your child one of them?

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What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is usually caused by injury to the developing brain before, during, or shortly after childbirth.

Damage to different parts of the brain can result in different types of cerebral palsy. Brain damage can cause problems with motor control, coordination, and balance. The level of disability depends on the severity of physical and neurological symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 85-90% of all cerebral palsy cases are congenital related to brain damage that happened before or during birth.

Determining the cause of your child’s cerebral palsy

It may take anywhere from several months to several years to diagnose a child with cerebral palsy.

The CDC recommends that children should be screened for developmental delays at 9, 18, 24, and 30 months. You should contact your pediatrician if you find your child is missing any developmental milestones so they can determine the exact cause.

Doctors will use computer tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to find damaged areas of the brain and signs of cerebral palsy. These imaging tests can help doctors determine the causes of cerebral palsy.

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What causes brain damage?

There are several common causes of brain damage that can result in cerebral palsy. These factors can cause abnormal development of the brain depending on the severity of brain injury.


Asphyxia is caused by a lack of oxygen flow to the brain. An early detachment of the placenta, a ruptured uterus, or a pinched umbilical cord during birth can all restrict blood flow and cause oxygen deprivation (hypoxia).

Brain hemorrhage

Brain hemorrhages occur from abnormal bleeding in the brain caused by ruptured blood vessels. Hemorrhages that occur before and during childbirth can cause serious brain damage that may lead to cerebral palsy.

Brain trauma

Head injuries may occur during labor or delivery or within the first several years of life. Trauma to an infant or toddler’s developing brain can cause cerebral palsy.

Genetic causes

The link between genetics and cerebral palsy is still being researched today. A study performed by Nature Genetics found that 14% of all cases of cerebral palsy may be linked to rare genetic mutations.

Low birthweight

Children with low birth weight have an increased risk of experiencing birth-related complications and developing cerebral palsy. According to the CDC, infants that weigh less than 5.5 lbs, and especially children weighing less than 3 pounds, 5 ounces are at a greater risk of having cerebral palsy.

Maternal infections

Mothers can pass infections to the fetus during pregnancy, which is especially dangerous in the first few weeks of conception. Viruses can cause the mother’s immune system to release proteins that can cause inflammation in the fetal brain.

Rubella (German measles) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) are major risk factors during pregnancy and can result in a child developing cerebral palsy. Mothers who eat raw or undercooked meat can increase the likelihood of getting an infection.

Newborn infections

Newborn infections such as meningitis can cause serious brain damage. Meningitis causes severe inflammation that may damage the motor control centers of a child’s brain, resulting in cerebral palsy.

Premature birth

Infants born prematurely have a greater risk of developing cerebral palsy. Children born before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered a premature birth. The CDC states that children born before the 32nd week of pregnancy have a very high risk of having cerebral palsy.

Severe jaundice

Newborns often experience mild cases of jaundice after birth that clear up once the excess bilirubin is filtered out by the liver.

Severe untreated jaundice can develop into kernicterus, which causes an unsafe level of bilirubin in the brain. High bilirubin levels can be toxic and cause brain damage resulting in cerebral palsy.

Causes by location of brain damage

Children can experience different types of cerebral palsy depending on the location of brain damage.

The areas of the brain that control motor skills are the motor cortex, cerebellum, basal ganglia, and pyramidal tracts. These areas relay impulses from the brain to the nerves and muscles to control movement. Damage to these parts of the brain can result in movement impairments and intellectual disabilities.

Spastic cerebral palsy

Spastic cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the motor cortex and pyramidal tracts. The motor cortex controls voluntary movement, and the pyramidal tracts relay brain signals to the muscles. Damage to these parts of the brain can cause spasticity and stiff muscle tone.

Athetoid/Dyskinetic cerebral palsy

Athetoid (also known as dyskinetic) cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the cerebellum and/or basal ganglia. This can cause abnormalities with balance, involuntary movement, drooling, and fluctuating muscle tone.

Ataxic cerebral palsy

Ataxic cerebral palsy is characterized by damage to the cerebellum. Children with ataxic cerebral palsy have difficulty with coordination, fine motor skills, depth perception, and speech. Ataxic cerebral palsy can also cause shakiness or tremors.

Mixed cerebral palsy

Children with mixed cerebral palsy experience symptoms of more than one type of the condition. Damage to more than one area of the brain can cause mixed cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence

Unfortunately, many cases of cerebral palsy are caused by careless errors by healthcare professionals during childbirth. Cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence is often preventable.

Forms of medical negligence that can lead to cerebral palsy include:

  • Failure to detect or properly treat infections
  • Failure to detect fetal distress such as lack of oxygen
  • Failure to perform a timely C-section
  • Improper use of vacuum extractors and forceps

If you believe your child may have cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence, you may be eligible to pursue financial compensation. Get a free case review today to learn more about taking legal action.

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Kristin Proctor, RN

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Cerebral palsy causes FAQs

What is the main cause of cerebral palsy?

The main cause of cerebral palsy is brain injury caused by lack of oxygen to the brain before, during, or shortly after childbirth.

Brain damage caused by lack of oxygen (hypoxia) can result in an array of symptoms such as issues with fine motor skills, movement, coordination, muscle tone, and developmental delays.

Does cerebral palsy get worse?

Cerebral palsy is a non-progressive disorder, meaning it does not improve or worsen over time. Although the condition itself does not change over time, the severity of symptoms of cerebral palsy can change with proper treatment.

What causes cerebral palsy during pregnancy?

Maternal infections can cause cerebral palsy during pregnancy. Viruses such as German measles and cytomegalovirus can cause major issues with fetal brain inflammation, resulting in cerebral palsy.

Can cerebral palsy be genetic?

Although cerebral palsy itself is not genetic, there are studies that show there are several genetic mutations that may lead to the development of cerebral palsy. These genetic mutations can cause issues with early brain development.

The Centre for Applied Genomics at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found that at least one in 10 cases of cerebral palsy likely has an underlying genetic cause.

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

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