Cerebral Palsy

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a broad term that describes a group of neurological (brain) disorders. It is a lifelong condition that affects the communication between the brain and the muscles, causing a permanent state of uncoordinated movement and posturing.

CP may result from several problems, such as lack of oxygen to the brain, genetic conditions, infections, brain hemorrhage, severe cases of jaundice, and injury to the head.

What causes cerebral palsy?

Many cases of CP have unknown causes. The disorder occurs when there is abnormal development or damage to areas in the brain that control motor function. It occurs in approximately three out of every 1,000 live births. Risk factors for CP include the following:

  • Prematurity

  • Blood clotting disorders

  • Very low birthweight (especially in babies weighing less than 3.3 lbs.)

  • Viruses

  • Chemical or substance abuse during pregnancy

  • Infection

  • Bleeding in the brain

  • Trauma

  • Complications of labor and delivery (Rarer than people believe, it only appears to be the cause in 5 to 10 percent of cases.)

What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

The following are the most common symptoms of CP. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. The child may have muscle weakness, poor motor control, or have stiffness or rigidity of the muscles in the arms or legs, also called spasticity. Muscle stiffness in the form of clenched fists may also be seen. Cerebral palsy is classified according to the kind of motor function the child may have, including the following:

  • Spastic diplegia (di means two): Spastic movements of the arms or legs; Diplegia is also called paraplegia.

  • Spastic quadriplegia (quad means four): Spastic movements in all four limbs (arms and legs)

  • Spastic hemiplegia (hemi means half): Spasticity affecting one half, or side, of the body (such as right arm and right leg)

  • Spastic double hemiplegia: Spasticity in both sides of the body, but the amount of stiffness, rigidity or high muscle tone is different when comparing the right side to the left side

  • Athetoid (or dyskinetic): Involuntary (unable to control), purposeless, and rigid movement

  • Ataxic: Affects balance, leading to an unsteady gait, and motions, which require fine coordination, such as writing

Children with CP may have additional problems, including the following:

  • Seizures

  • Vision, hearing, or speech problems

  • Learning disabilities and behavior problems

  • Intellectual disability

  • Respiratory problems

  • Bowel and bladder problems

  • Bone abnormalities, including scoliosis (a lateral, or sideways, curvature and rotation of the back bones, giving the appearance that the person is leaning to one side)

Babies with CP are often slow to reach developmental milestones, such as learning to roll over, sit, crawl, or walk. They may also have certain reflexes present that normally disappear in early infancy. The symptoms of CP may resemble other conditions. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?

The diagnosis of CP is made with a physical examination. During the examination, the doctor obtains a complete prenatal and birth history of the child. The diagnosis of CP is not usually made until the child is at least 6 to 12 months old. This is the time when the child should be achieving developmental milestones, such as walking, and hand and head control. However, approximately half of the children suspected to have CP at 12 months appear to grow out of it by age 2. Diagnostic tests may include the following:

  • Neurological examination: This is to evaluate reflexes and brain and motor function.

  • X-rays: A diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Feeding studies

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): A procedure that records the brain's continuous, electrical activity by means of electrodes attached to the scalp.

  • Blood tests

  • Gait lab analysis: This is to evaluate the walking pattern of the child.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce highly detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Computed tomography scan (also called CAT or CT scan): A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

  • Genetic studies: Diagnostic tests that evaluate for conditions that have a tendency to run in families.

  • Metabolic tests: Diagnostic tests that evaluate the absence or lack of specific enzymes (for processing amino acids, vitamins and carbohydrates) that are necessary to maintain the normal chemical function of the body.

Treatment of cerebral palsy

Specific treatment for cerebral palsy will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • The extent of the disease

  • The type of CP

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Since CP is a lifelong condition that is not fully correctable, management includes focusing on preventing or minimizing deformities and maximizing the child's capability at home and in the community. A child is best treated with an interdisciplinary team that may include the following health care providers:

  • Pediatrician/family practitioner

  • Orthopedic surgeon: A surgeon who specializes in conditions of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones

  • Neurologist: A doctor who specializes in conditions of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves

  • Neurosurgeon: A surgeon who specializes in operating on the brain and spinal cord and nerves

  • Ophthalmologist: A doctor who specializes in eye problems

  • Dentist

  • Nurse

  • Orthotist: An individual who specializes in making braces and splints

  • Rehabilitation team (for example, physical, occupational, speech therapy, audiology)

Management of CP includes nonsurgical and surgical options. Nonsurgical interventions may include:

  • Rehabilitation (physical, occupational and speech therapy)

  • Positioning aids (used to help the child sit, lie, or stand)

  • Braces and splints (used to prevent deformity and to provide support or protection)

  • Medications (used to help control seizures or to decrease spasticity in the muscles; the medications may be given by mouth or as an injection)

Surgical interventions may be used to manage the following conditions:

Long-term outlook for the child with cerebral palsy

Since CP is a lifelong condition that is not fully correctable, management includes focusing on preventing or minimizing deformities and maximizing the child's capabilities at home and in the community. Positive reinforcement will encourage the child to strengthen his or her self-esteem and promote as much independence as possible.

The full extent of the problems is usually not completely understood immediately after birth, but may be revealed as the child grows and develops.


Reviewed by Benjamin C. Kennedy, MD, Shih-Shan Lang Chen, MD