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Quick Facts

Cerebral Palsy

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebrum (cerebral) is a medical word for the brain. Palsy is a problem moving muscles.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a brain condition that affects the muscles. It makes muscles stiff and hard to move.

  • CP is caused by brain damage that occurs before, during, or shortly after birth

  • Muscle problems can be mild (stiff or clumsy) or severe (unable to walk or move certain muscles at all)

  • Most children with CP live to be adults

  • There is no cure

  • Treatment can help the symptoms

What causes cerebral palsy?

CP is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls muscles. Sometimes other parts of the baby's brain are also damaged.

Some babies are born with brain damage. This damage can be caused by:

  • Infections in the mother during pregnancy

  • A problem with the baby's genes

Other times a baby's brain is damaged during delivery or right after birth. The damage is sometimes caused by:

  • A lack of oxygen during delivery

  • Infections in the baby after being born

  • Severe illness during the baby’s first year of life

Infants who are born early (premature) and who have a low birth weight are more likely to have brain damage that can cause cerebral palsy.

What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

Children may have:

  • Stiff and weak arms and legs

  • Walking problems or be unable to walk at all

  • Speech problems

  • Crossed, lazy, or wandering eyes (called strabismus) and other vision problems

  • Swallowing problems

  • Uncontrollable, jerking motions

These problems can range from mild to very severe. Children with mild problems may just seem clumsy. Children with severe problems may not be able to walk or even swallow food.

Children who have damage to other parts of their brain may also have problems with hearing, learning, or behavior.

How does the doctor know if my child has cerebral palsy?

Doctors may think your child has CP if your child is:

  • Late learning to walk

  • Late developing other skills

  • Under 2 years old and has stiff and weak muscles (called spasticity)

The doctor usually does an MRI of your child’s brain to check for certain brain abnormalities. An MRI is a scan showing detailed pictures. However, there is no test that tells for sure whether your child has CP.

How do doctors treat cerebral palsy?

There's no cure for CP. However, your doctor and therapist can do many things to help your child move around better, including:

  • Arm or leg braces to help with muscle control and walking

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen and loosen muscles

  • Occupational therapy to learn how to do daily activities, such as brushing teeth, using a fork, or combing hair

  • Speech therapy to help make speech clearer and to learn how to swallow more easily

  • Medicines to help muscles relax

Your child may take medicines by mouth to help muscles relax. Sometimes, doctors inject Botox® into a child's muscles to make them relax. If a muscle is so stiff that it keeps your child from moving an arm or leg at all, doctors may do surgery. In the surgery, doctors cut or lengthen the tendon that attaches the stiff muscle to the bone.