Learn About Cerebral Palsy

What is the definition of Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that can involve the brain. This affects nervous system functions, such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking.

There are several different types of CP, including spastic, dyskinetic, ataxic, hypotonic, and mixed.

Central nervous system and peripheral nervous system
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What are the alternative names for Cerebral Palsy?

Spastic paralysis; Paralysis - spastic; Spastic hemiplegia; Spastic diplegia; Spastic quadriplegia

What are the causes of Cerebral Palsy?

CP is caused by injuries or abnormalities of the brain. Most of these problems occur as the baby grows in the womb. But they can happen at any time during the first 2 years of life, while the baby's brain is still developing.

In some people with cerebral palsy, parts of the brain are injured due to a low level of oxygen (hypoxia) in those areas. It is not known why this occurs.

Premature infants have a slightly higher risk of developing CP. It may also occur in early infancy as a result of certain conditions such as:

  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Brain infections (encephalitis, meningitis, herpes simplex infections)
  • Head injury
  • Infections in the mother during pregnancy (rubella)
  • Untreated jaundice
  • Injuries to brain during the childbirth process

In some cases, the cause of CP is never determined.

What are the symptoms of Cerebral Palsy?

Symptoms of CP can be very different between people with this group of disorders. Symptoms may:

  • Be very mild or very severe
  • Only involve one side of the body or both sides
  • Be more pronounced in either the arms or legs, or involve both the arms and legs

Symptoms are usually seen before a child is 2 years old. Sometimes symptoms begin as early as 3 months. Parents may notice that their child is delayed in reaching developmental stages such as sitting, rolling, crawling, or walking.

There are several different types of cerebral palsy. Some people have a mix of symptoms.

Spastic CP is the most common type. Symptoms include:

  • Muscles that are very tight and do not stretch. They may tighten even more over time.
  • Abnormal walk (gait) -- arms tucked in toward the sides, knees crossed or touching, legs make "scissors" movements, walk on the toes.
  • Joints are tight and do not open all the way (called joint contracture).
  • Muscle weakness or loss of movement in a group of muscles (paralysis).
  • Symptoms may affect one arm or leg, one side of the body, both legs, or both arms and legs.

The following symptoms may occur in other types of CP:

  • Abnormal movements (twisting, jerking, or writhing) of the hands, feet, arms, or legs while awake, which gets worse during periods of stress
  • Tremors
  • Unsteady gait
  • Loss of coordination
  • Floppy muscles, especially at rest, and joints that move around too much

Other brain and nervous system symptoms may include:

  • Learning disabilities are common, but intelligence can be normal
  • Speech problems (dysarthria)
  • Hearing or vision problems
  • Seizures
  • Pain, especially in adults, which can be difficult to manage

Eating and digestion symptoms:

  • Difficulty sucking or feeding in infants, or chewing and swallowing in older children and adults
  • Vomiting or constipation

Other symptoms:

  • Increased drooling
  • Slower than normal growth
  • Irregular breathing
  • Urinary incontinence
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What are the current treatments for Cerebral Palsy?

There is no cure for CP. The goal of treatment is to help the person be as independent as possible.

Treatment requires a team approach, including:

  • Primary care doctor
  • Dentist (dental check-ups are recommended around every 6 months)
  • Social worker
  • Nurses
  • Occupational, physical, and speech therapists
  • Other specialists, including a neurologist, rehabilitation physician, pulmonologist, and gastroenterologist

Treatment is based on the person's symptoms and the need to prevent complications.

Self and home care include:

  • Getting enough food and nutrition
  • Keeping the home safe
  • Performing exercises recommended by the providers
  • Practicing proper bowel care (stool softeners, fluids, fiber, laxatives, regular bowel habits)
  • Protecting the joints from injury

Putting the child in regular schools is recommended unless physical disabilities or mental development makes this impossible. Special education or schooling may help.

The following may help with communication and learning:

  • Glasses
  • Hearing aids
  • Muscle and bone braces
  • Walking aids
  • Wheelchairs

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, orthopedic help, or other treatments may also be needed to help with daily activities and care.

Medicines may include:

  • Anticonvulsants to prevent or reduce the frequency of seizures
  • Botulinum toxin to help with spasticity and drooling
  • Muscle relaxants to reduce tremors and spasticity

Surgery may be needed in some cases to:

  • Control gastroesophageal reflux
  • Cut certain nerves from the spinal cord to help with pain and spasticity
  • Place pump for medicine administration into spinal canal
  • Place feeding tubes
  • Release joint contractures

Shockwave therapy to reduce spasticity is being investigated.

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What are the support groups for Cerebral Palsy?

Stress and burnout among parents and other caregivers of people with cerebral palsy is common. Seek support and more information from organizations that specialize in CP.

What is the outlook (prognosis) for Cerebral Palsy?

CP is a life-long disorder. Long-term care may be required. The disorder does not affect expected length of life. The amount of disability varies. Babies with mild CP may outgrow their symptoms.

Many adults are able to live in the community, either independently or with different levels of help.

What are the possible complications of Cerebral Palsy?

CP may lead to the following health problems:

  • Bone thinning (osteoporosis)
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Hip dislocation and arthritis in the hip joint
  • Injuries from falls
  • Pressure sores
  • Joint contractures
  • Pneumonia caused by choking
  • Poor nutrition
  • Reduced communication skills (sometimes)
  • Reduced intellect (sometimes)
  • Scoliosis
  • Seizures (in about half of the people who are affected by cerebral palsy)
  • Social stigma
When should I contact a medical professional for Cerebral Palsy?

Call your provider if symptoms of CP develop, especially if you know that an injury occurred during birth or early infancy.

How do I prevent Cerebral Palsy?

Getting the proper prenatal care may reduce the risk for some rare causes of CP. In most cases though, the injury causing the disorder is not preventable.

Pregnant mothers with certain medical conditions may need to be followed in a high-risk prenatal clinic.

Adults with CP should continue to follow with a neurologist to reduce the risk of late complications.

What are the latest Cerebral Palsy Clinical Trials?
Hip Reconstruction in Cerebral Palsy With Pelvic Osteotomy
Summary: Prospective study enrolling patients with cerebral palsy and with subluxation of the hips > 40% and acetabular dysplasia. The patients will be stratified according the degree of subluxation and age. The treatment protocol is composed by femur variation osteotomy and periacetabular osteotomy. Patients will be divided in two groups according the type of bone graft used at periacetabular osteotomy (a...
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Evaluation of the Efficacy of a Physical Therapy Intervention Targeting Sitting and Reaching for Young Children With Cerebral Palsy
Summary: The purpose of the proposed project is to compare the efficacy of two fully developed physical therapy interventions in 8-24 months olds with or at high risk of having Cerebral Palsy (CP). Sitting Together And Reaching To Play (START-Play) targets sitting, reaching and motor-based problem solving in infancy to improve global development. Usual Care Physical Therapy (UCPT) focuses on advancing moto...
What are the Latest Advances for Cerebral Palsy?
Dietary and nutritional interventions in children with cerebral palsy: A systematic literature review.
Summary: Dietary and nutritional interventions in children with cerebral palsy: A systematic literature review.
Effects of Acupuncture Combined with Biofeedback Therapy on Limb Motor Rehabilitation in Patients with Acute Stroke: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
Summary: Effects of Acupuncture Combined with Biofeedback Therapy on Limb Motor Rehabilitation in Patients with Acute Stroke: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
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Trial of Erythropoietin for Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy in Newborns.
Summary: Trial of Erythropoietin for Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy in Newborns.
Who are the sources who wrote this article ?

Published Date: July 26, 2021
Published By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Department of Neurology, Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

What are the references for this article ?

Greenberg JM, Haberman B, Narendran V, Nathan AT, Schibler K. Neonatal morbidities of prenatal and perinatal origin. In: Resnik R, Lockwood CJ, Moore TR, Greene MF, Copel JA, Silver RM, eds. Creasy and Resnik's Maternal-Fetal Medicine: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 73.

Johnston MV. Encephalopathies. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 616.

Kudva A, Abraham ME, Gold J, et al. Intrathecal baclofen, selective dorsal rhizotomy, and extracorporeal shockwave therapy for the treatment of spasticity in cerebral palsy: a systematic review. Neurosurg Rev. 2021;44(6):3209-3228. PMID: 33871733 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33871733/.

Oskoui M, Shevell MI, Swaiman KF. Cerebral palsy. In: Swaiman KF, Ashwal S, Ferriero DM, et al, eds. Swaiman's Pediatric Neurology: Principles and Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 97.

Sidhu R, O'Banion D, Hall C. Autism and other developmental disabilities. In: Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, Newman NJ, eds. Bradley's and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 90.

Smith SE, Gannotti M, Hurvitz EA, et al. Adults with cerebral palsy require ongoing neurologic care: a systematic review. Ann Neurol. 2021;89(5):860-871. PMID: 33550625 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33550625/.

Verschuren O, Peterson MD, Balemans AC, Hurvitz EA. Exercise and physical activity recommendations for people with cerebral palsy. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2016;58(8):798-808. PMID: 26853808 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26853808/.