Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain before, during or after birth. There are multiple types of brain damage that can lead to different types of cerebral palsy.

What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is caused by traumatic injury to a developing brain, including the parts of the brain responsible for motor control, coordination and balance. Damage to different parts of the brain’s motor control centers causes different types of cerebral palsy. The level of disability depends on the severity and timing of the brain injury.

  • About 70 percent of cerebral palsy cases are caused by prenatal injuries
  • About 20 percent are caused by injuries during birth
  • About 10 percent are caused by injuries after birth

What Causes Brain Damage?

There are several incidents that can damage the developing brain. For example, an infection may inhibit the neurological development of neurons and synapses in the brain or trauma may occur during or after birth.

Things that can disrupt or hinder the healthy development of a child’s brain include:

  • Infections during pregnancy - Mothers can pass infections to the fetus during pregnancy. Prenatal infections are most dangerous in the first few weeks after conception. German measles (rubella) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) during pregnancy are known causes of cerebral palsy. These viruses cause the mother’s immune system to release proteins that not only attack the infection, but also cause inflammation in the baby’s brain that interferes with normal development. Mothers who eat raw or undercooked meat can increase the likelihood of getting an infection.
  • Severe untreated jaundice - When a newborn has a yellow color to their skin and/or eyes, it is known as jaundice. Jaundice is caused by excess bilirubin, a chemical pigment that is normally filtered out by the liver. It is normal for newborns to experience mild jaundice before their livers fully develop. However, severe jaundice left untreated can turn into a condition known as kernicterus. Kernicterus is characterized by buildup of an unsafe level of bilirubin, which is toxic to the brain
  • Asphyxiation - Asphyxiation is a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. It can cause severe brain damage to a baby during birth. Asphyxiation that occurs during labor or delivery may have been caused by medical malpractice or neglect. Early detachment of the placenta, a ruptured uterus during birth or the umbilical cord getting pinched in a way that restricts blood flow can cause oxygen deprivation. Choking on an object or a near-drowning experience can also cause asphyxiation that leads to cerebral palsy.
  • Brain injury during or shortly after birth - Blunt trauma to the infant or toddler brain can cause cerebral palsy.  Head injuries may occur during labor or delivery or within the first several years of life.
  • Brain hemorrhage before birth - A brain hemorrhage is abnormal bleeding of the brain caused by a ruptured blood vessel, which can cause serious damage to the motor control centers in the brain.
  • Infections after birth - Infections (such as meningitis) contracted by newborns can cause brain damage. Meningitis causes severe inflammation that can damage the motor control centers of the brain.
  • Genetic causes - There has been some speculation and research to suggest that a minute proportion of cerebral palsy cases are hereditary. This is still being studied, and the number of genetic cases of CP, if they exist, is likely negligible.

Determining the Cause of Your Child’s Condition

It usually takes up to 18 months to diagnose a child with cerebral palsy, but it could take longer for mild cases. Doctors may use computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take images of the child’s brain. These scans may reveal damage in key parts of the brain that give clues to the cause. However, it isn’t always possible to determine the cause of cerebral palsy.

Causes by Location of Brain Damage

The areas of the brain that control motor skills and movement are the motor cortex, pyramidal tract, cerebellum and the basal ganglia. All of these components relay the impulses from the brain to the nerves and muscles that control movement. Damage to any of these parts of the brain may cause cerebral palsy.

  • Spastic - Spastic cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the motor cortex. This causes exaggerated, jerky movements.
  • Athetoid/dyskinetic - Athetoid CP is caused by damage to the cerebellum and/or the basal ganglia. Damage to the cerebellum causes balance issues, while damage to the basal ganglia causes involuntary movements. Athetoid cerebral palsy involves damage to the basal ganglia, but some cases also involve damage to the cerebellum.
  • Ataxic - Damage strictly to the cerebellum causes ataxic cerebral palsy. This damage is responsible for issues with coordination and fine motor skills. Children with ataxic CP appear unbalanced.
  • Mixed - Those with a mixed condition have traits of several types of cerebral palsy caused by injuries to multiple motor control centers in the brain.

Injuries at Birth

Approximately 10 percent of cerebral palsy cases are caused by injuries at birth. The most common cause of these injuries is asphyxiation, and most often in delivery rooms.

Although obstetric care is the best it’s ever been, a small percentage of birth injuries could have been prevented. These injuries are caused by severe medical neglect.

Scenarios that can lead to injuries at birth include failures to:

  • Detect irregularities in the umbilical cord
  • Identify a decrease in the baby’s heart rate
  • Treat severe jaundice

These scenarios aren’t typical and result from careless medical procedures in the delivery room. Regardless of the cause of a child's cerebral palsy, there are many treatment options available to help them live as normal a life as possible.

If you suspect that your child's cerebral palsy was a result of a preventable birth injury, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. Get in touch with our experienced lawyers and start your free case review today.

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. Understanding Cerebral Palsy: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Marion Stanton. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia. 2012.
  2. Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving 2nd ed. Freeman Miller, M.D. and Steven J. Bachrach, M.D. 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.
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