Causes of cerebral palsy include brain damage that can result from oxygen deprivation or from infections and brain malformations.
Symptoms range from barely noticeable clumsiness, to substantial difficulty moving one or more limbs, to paralysis and joints so stiff they cannot be moved at all.
Some children with cerebral palsy also have intellectual disability, behavioral problems, difficulty seeing or hearing, and/or seizure disorders.
The diagnosis is suspected when children are late learning to walk or developing other motor skills or when a child's muscles are stiff or weak.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but physical, occupational, and speech therapy and sometimes medications and/or surgery can help children achieve their highest potential.
Most children with cerebral palsy survive into adulthood.
Cerebral palsy (CP) affects about 2 to 3 of every 1,000 infants, especially preterm infants Preterm (Premature) Newborns A preterm newborn is a baby delivered before 37 weeks of gestation. Depending on when they are born, preterm newborns have underdeveloped organs, which may not be ready to function outside of... read more who are less than 28 weeks gestation.
Cerebral palsy is not a disease. Rather, it is a group of symptoms that results from malformations in, or damage to, the parts of the brain that control muscle movements (motor areas). Sometimes children who have cerebral palsy also have abnormalities of other parts of the brain. Brain damage that results in cerebral palsy may occur during pregnancy, during birth, after birth, or in early childhood. Once the brain damage has occurred, it does not get worse even though the symptoms may change as the child grows and matures. If muscle malfunction results from brain damage that occurs after 2 years of age, it is not considered cerebral palsy.
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Causes of Cerebral Palsy
Many different types of brain malformations and brain damage can cause cerebral palsy, and sometimes more than one cause is involved.
Problems that occur just before, during, and just after birth cause 15 to 20% of cases. These problems include lack of oxygen during delivery, infections, and brain injuries.
During pregnancy, infections, such as rubella Rubella Rubella is a contagious viral infection that typically causes mild symptoms, such as joint pain and a rash, but can cause severe birth defects if the mother becomes infected with rubella during... read more , toxoplasmosis Toxoplasmosis Toxoplasmosis is infection caused by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Infection occurs when people unknowingly ingest toxoplasma cysts from cat feces or eat contaminated meat... read more , Zika virus infection Zika Virus Infection Zika virus infection is a mosquito-borne viral infection that typically causes no symptoms but can cause fever, rash, joint pain, or infection of the membrane that covers the white of the eye... read more , or cytomegalovirus infection Cytomegalovirus (CMV) Infection Cytomegalovirus infection is a common herpesvirus infection with a wide range of symptoms: from no symptoms to fever and fatigue (resembling infectious mononucleosis) to severe symptoms involving... read more , sometimes result in cerebral palsy. Sometimes the brain malformations that cause cerebral palsy result from genetic abnormalities.
Preterm infants Preterm (Premature) Newborns A preterm newborn is a baby delivered before 37 weeks of gestation. Depending on when they are born, preterm newborns have underdeveloped organs, which may not be ready to function outside of... read more are particularly vulnerable, possibly in part because in a certain part of their brain, some of the blood vessels are thin and bleed easily. High levels of bilirubin in the blood can lead to a form of brain damage called kernicterus Complications of jaundice Jaundice is a yellow color to the skin and/or eyes caused by an increase in bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow substance formed when hemoglobin (the part of red blood cells... read more , which can cause cerebral palsy.
During the first two years of life, severe illness, such as inflammation of the tissues covering the brain (meningitis Meningitis in Children Bacterial meningitis is a serious infection of the layers of tissue covering the brain and spinal cord ( meninges). Bacterial meningitis in older infants and children usually results from bacteria... read more ), a severe bloodstream infection (sepsis Sepsis in Newborns Sepsis is a serious bodywide reaction to infection spread through the blood. Newborns with sepsis appear generally ill—they are listless, do not feed well, often have a gray color, and may have... read more ), injury, and severe dehydration Dehydration in Children Dehydration is loss of water from the body, usually caused by vomiting and/or diarrhea. Dehydration occurs when there is significant loss of body water and, to varying amounts, electrolytes... read more , can damage the brain and result in cerebral palsy.
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Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy
Symptoms of cerebral palsy can range from clumsiness to severe spasticity that contorts the child's arms and legs, requiring mobility aids, such as braces, crutches, and wheelchairs. Because other parts of the brain may also be affected by the problem that caused the cerebral palsy, many children with cerebral palsy have other disabilities, such as intellectual disability Intellectual Disability Intellectual disability is significantly below average intellectual functioning present from birth or early infancy, causing limitations in the ability to conduct normal activities of daily... read more , behavioral problems, difficulty seeing or hearing, and seizure disorders Seizures in Children Seizures are a periodic disturbance of the brain’s electrical activity, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. When older infants or young children have seizures, they often... read more .
There are four main types of cerebral palsy:
Athetoid (or dyskinetic)
In all forms of cerebral palsy, speech may be hard to understand because the child has difficulty controlling the muscles involved in speech.
Spastic cerebral palsy
Spasticity is muscle stiffness that prevents normal movement.
Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common type and occurs in 80% of children with cerebral palsy.
In this type, the muscles are stiff (spastic) and weak. The stiffness may affect different parts of the body:
Both arms and both legs (quadriplegia)
The legs more than the arms (diplegia)
Sometimes only the arm and leg on one side (hemiplegia)
Rarely, only the legs and lower part of the body (paraplegia)
The affected arms and legs are poorly developed, as well as stiff and weak. Some children may walk in a criss-cross motion, where one leg swings over the other (scissors gait), and some may walk on their toes.
Crossed, lazy, or wandering eyes (strabismus Strabismus Strabismus is an intermittent or constant misalignment of an eye so that its line of vision is not pointed at the same object as the other eye. If untreated, strabismus can cause amblyopia ... read more ) and other vision problems may occur.
Children with spastic quadriplegia are the most severely affected. They commonly have intellectual disability (sometimes severe) along with seizures and trouble swallowing. Children who have trouble swallowing may choke on secretions from the mouth and stomach and inhale (aspirate) them. Aspiration inflames the lungs, causing difficulty breathing. Repeated aspiration can permanently damage the lungs.
Many children with spastic hemiplegia or diplegia have normal intelligence and are less likely to have seizures. Children with spastic quadriplegia may have severe intellectual disability.
Athetoid cerebral palsy
Athetosis is involuntary writhing movements.
Athetoid cerebral palsy is the second most common type and occurs in about 15% of children with cerebral palsy.
In this type the arms, legs, and body spontaneously move slowly and involuntarily. Movements may also be writhing, abrupt, and jerky. Strong emotion makes the movements worse, and sleep makes them disappear.
Children usually have normal intelligence and rarely have seizures.
Difficulty articulating words clearly is common and is often severe. If the cause is kernicterus, affected children are often deaf and have difficulty looking up.
Ataxic cerebral palsy
Ataxia is difficulty controlling and coordinating body movements, particularly walking.
Ataxic cerebral palsy is rare.
In this type, coordination is poor, and muscles are weak. Movements become shaky when children reach for an object (a type of tremor). Children have difficulty when they try to move rapidly or do things that require fine movements. They walk unsteadily, with their legs widely spaced.
Mixed cerebral palsy
In the mixed type, two of the above types, most often spastic and athetoid, are combined. This type occurs in many children with cerebral palsy.
Children with the mixed type may have severe intellectual disability.
Diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy
Imaging of the brain
Blood tests and sometimes tests of nerve and muscle function
Cerebral palsy is difficult to diagnose during early infancy. As the baby matures, delays in learning to walk and developing other motor skills (motor development), spasticity, or lack of coordination become noticeable. The specific type of cerebral palsy often cannot be distinguished before the child is 2 years old.
If doctors suspect cerebral palsy, brain imaging, typically magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) In magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves are used to produce highly detailed images. MRI does not use x-rays and is usually very safe... read more , is done. It can usually detect any abnormalities that may be causing symptoms.
Doctors also ask questions about problems during the pregnancy or delivery and about the child's developmental progress. Such information may help identify a cause.
Although laboratory tests cannot identify cerebral palsy, a doctor may do blood tests to identify a cause and to look for other disorders.
If the cause is still not clear or if muscle problems seem to be getting worse or differ from those typically caused by cerebral palsy, doctors may recommend additional testing, such as electrical studies of nerves (nerve conduction studies Nerve conduction studies Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a simple, painless procedure in which... read more ) and muscles (electromyography Electromyography Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a simple, painless procedure in which... read more ) and genetic testing.
Treatment of Cerebral Palsy
Physical, occupational, and speech therapy
Botulinum toxin and other medications to reduce spasticity
Cerebral palsy cannot be cured, and its problems are lifelong. However, symptoms of cerebral palsy can be managed and much can be done to improve a child's mobility and independence. The goal is to enable children to become as independent as they can be.
Physical therapy Physical Therapy (PT) Physical therapy, a component of rehabilitation, involves exercising and manipulating the body with an emphasis on the back, upper arms, and legs. It can improve joint and muscle function, helping... read more , occupational therapy Occupational Therapy (OT) Occupational therapy, a component of rehabilitation, is intended to enhance a person's ability to do basic self-care activities, useful work, and leisure activities. These activities include... read more , and braces may improve muscle control and walking, particularly when rehabilitation is started as early as possible. Speech therapy Rehabilitation for Speech Disorders Rehabilitation services are needed by people who have lost the ability to speak normally, often because of an injury, a stroke, an infection, a tumor, surgery, or a progressive disorder. Aphasia... read more may make speech clearer and help with swallowing problems.
Constraint-induced movement therapy may help when the disorder does not affect all the limbs. For this therapy, the unaffected limb is restrained during waking hours, except during specific activities, so that children must do tasks with the affected limb. As a result, new pathways for nerve impulses may develop in the brain, enabling children to use the affected limb better.
Occupational therapists can help some children learn ways to compensate for their muscle problems and thus do daily activities (such as bathing, eating, and dressing) for themselves. Or therapists may teach children to use devices that help them do these activities.
Certain medications may help. When botulinum toxin is injected into muscles, the muscles are less able to pull unevenly on joints and less likely to become permanently shortened (called contractures). Botulinum toxin, the bacterial toxin that causes botulism, works by paralyzing the injected muscles. It is the same drug sold as Botox that is used to treat wrinkles. Another medication may be injected into the nerves that stimulate the affected muscles. This medication slightly damages the nerves, lessening the muscle's pull on the joint.
Other medications used to lessen spasticity include baclofen, benzodiazepines (such as diazepam), tizanidine, and sometimes dantrolene, all taken by mouth. Some children with severe spasticity benefit from an implantable pump that provides a continuous infusion of baclofen into the fluid around the spinal cord.
Surgery may be done to cut or lengthen tendons of the stiff muscles that limit motion. Also, surgeons may connect tendons to a different part of the joint to balance the pull on the joint. Sometimes cutting certain nerve roots coming from the spinal cord (dorsal rhizotomy) reduces the spasticity and may help a few children, especially those who were born prematurely, as long as spasticity affects mainly the legs and mental function is good.
Many children with cerebral palsy grow normally and may attend regular schools if they do not have severe intellectual disabilities. Other children require extensive physical therapy, need special education, and are severely limited in activities of daily living, requiring some type of lifelong care and assistance. However, even severely affected children can benefit from education and training, which increase their independence and self-esteem and greatly reduce the burden for family members or other caregivers.
Information and counseling are available to parents to help them understand their child's condition and potential and to assist with problems as they arise. Loving parental care combined with assistance from public and private agencies, such as community health agencies, health organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy, and vocational rehabilitation organizations, can help children reach their highest potential.
Prognosis for Cerebral Palsy
The prognosis usually depends on the type of cerebral palsy and on its severity. Most children with cerebral palsy survive into adulthood. Only the most severely affected—those incapable of any self-care or taking food by mouth—have a substantially shortened life expectancy.
With appropriate treatment and training, many children, especially those with spastic diplegia or hemiplegia, can lead a near-normal life.
The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
United Cerebral Palsy: Many resources for parents and families, including education, assistive technology, safety, travel, and transportation
Miller, F and Bachrach, SJ: Cerebral palsy: A complete guide for caregiving, ed. 3. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Drugs Mentioned In This Article
|Generic Name||Select Brand Names|
|ED Baclofen, FLEQSUVY, Gablofen, Lioresal, Lioresal Intrathecal, LYVISPAH, OZOBAX|
|Diastat, Dizac, Valium, VALTOCO|
|Dantrium, Revonto , RYANODEX|