Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions, such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking.
There are several different types of cerebral palsy, including spastic, dyskinetic, ataxic, hypotonic, and mixed.
Cerebral palsy 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 cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy may also occur during early infancy as a result of several conditions, including:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Brain infections (encephalitis, meningitis, herpes simplex infections)
- Head injury
- Infections in the mother during pregnancy (rubella)
- Severe jaundice
In some cases, the cause of cerebral palsy is never determined.
Symptoms of cerebral palsy 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 cerebral palsy 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 cerebral palsy:
- Abnormal movements (twisting, jerking, or writhing) of the hands, feet, arms, or legs while awake, which gets worse during periods of stress
- 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
- 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
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a full neurologic exam. In older people, testing cognitive function is also important.
Other tests may be performed as needed, most often to rule out other disorders:
There is no cure for cerebral palsy. 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
- 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:
- Hearing aids
- Muscle and bone braces
- Walking aids
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 feeding tubes
- Release joint contractures
Stress and burnout among parents and other caregivers of cerebral palsy patients is common. Seek support and more information from organizations that specialize in cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy 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.
Many adults are able to live in the community, either independently or with different levels of help.
Cerebal palsy may lead to the following health problems:
- Bone thinning or 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)
- Seizures (in about half of the people who are affected by cerebral palsy)
- Social stigma
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if symptoms of cerebral palsy develop, especially if you know that an injury occurred during birth or early infancy.
Getting the proper prenatal care may reduce the risk of some rare causes of cerebral palsy. 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.
Spastic paralysis; Paralysis - spastic; Spastic hemiplegia; Spastic diplegia; Spastic quadriplegia
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Johnston MV. Encephalopathies. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 598.
Nass R, Ross G. Developmental disabilities. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 61.
Noritz GH, Murphy NA; American Academy of Pediatrics Neuromotor Screening Expert Panel. Motor delays: early identification and evaluation. Pediatrics. 2013;131:e2016-2027. PMID: 23713113 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23713113.
Update Date 8/13/2015
Updated by: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.