What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a medical disorder caused by a brain injury or malfunction that can occur naturally or as a result of an injury that occurs before, during or shortly after birth. CP primarily affects body movement, reflex, posture and balance, as well as muscle tone and coordination. In many cases, the disorder can also impact fine motor skills, gross motor skills and oral motor functioning. Although CP is a permanent condition, its symptoms can change but typically do not worsen over time.

What Causes CP?

CP is caused by abnormal development of the brain or damage to the developing brain that impacts a child’s ability to control his or her muscles. CP primarily impacts body movement, reflexes, posture, and balance, as well as muscle tone and coordination.

These causes could include:

  • Birth Asphyxia – the lack of oxygen to the brain of the baby
  • Traumatic Brain Injury – trauma to the head of the baby, either before, during or immediately after delivery
  • Infections – during pregnancy or after birth; these infections can be present in the baby or the mother and usually results in inflammation around the brain of the baby
  • Genetic Mutations – these can result in abnormal brain development
  • Mismanagement of Labor or Delivery – can result in trauma to the child directly or indirectly through one or more of the following:
    • Premature birth
    • Delayed delivery or C-section
    • Lack of oxygen or blood to the brain (HIE & brain asphyxia)
    • Spinal cord injuries and autonomic dysreflexia (SCI & AD)
    • Brachial Plexus (Erb’s Palsy or Brachial Plexus Palsy) & Shoulder Dystocia
    • Improper use of tools such as forceps or vacuum extractor
    • Failure to recognize signs of fetal distress
  • Negligent Medical Care After Delivery – failure to correctly diagnosis and properly treat various indications, such as the failure to manage a newborn’s airway, failure to properly administer head cooling therapy and untreated jaundice or kernicterus, among others. Learn more about medical malpractice in our resources section.

While symptoms of CP can range from mild to severe, they do not – in general – worsen over time.

Symptoms

Children with CP often exhibit muscle spasms and are unable to control bodily movements. Some children may have relaxed floppy muscles, while others have stiff, tight muscles, and often have muscle spasms. Learn more about uncontrollable movements here.

CP often affects a child’s development and causes severe delays, including cognitive, physical, social, and emotional delays.  These delays are the impact of brain damage that occurred during infancy. Learn more about developmental delays here.

CP can affect a child’s ability to grow and develop at a normal pace. CP will often prevent a child from maturing as quickly as he or she should, and can affect the child’s weight, mental skills and mood. Learn more about failure to thrive here.

A joint contracture is a prevalent condition within those suffering from spastic CP. It is the abnormal shortening or tightening of a muscle that results in the loss of normal joint movement. In some instances, this may be addressed through physical therapy or the use of various medical devices. Learn more about joint contractures >>>

CP can affect a child’s oral muscles and inhibit oral motor function, specifically the muscles in and around the jaw and mouth. The effects of this can range from mild (slurred speech) to severe (difficulty swallowing). Depending on the severity, parents can use different speech therapies or a feeding tube to assist their child. Learn more about oral motor skills here.

Types

Known as the most common form of cerebral palsy, spastic CP causes tightness in the muscles. Those with CP often suffer from stiff and jerky movements, and have difficulty letting go of something in their hand. Many children with spastic cerebral palsy rely on medications, therapies, or surgical interventions to manage their spastic movements and prevent secondary complications. Learn more about spastic CP.

Athetoid CP is a causes a variety of movement disorders resulting in involuntary and uncontrolled movements. A child may be shaky and unsteady, making frequent, abrupt movements. Due to the mixed muscle tone involved in athetoid cerebral palsy, a child may experience difficulty with fine motor skills and maintaining torso control. Learn more about athetoid CP.

A less common form of CP is ataxic, which disturbs a child’s sense of balance and depth perception, resulting in jerky, uncoordinated movements. A child with this type of CP may exhibit mixed tone and experience challenges with controlled movements. Learn more about ataxic CP.

While there are specific types of CP, there are times when an individual’s brain damage isn’t confined to one location and thus affects a variety of areas throughout the body. This type of CP is referred to as, “Mixed.”

How Do I Know If My Child Has Cerebral Palsy?

Some children with CP are diagnosed within the first year of life; others may not be diagnosed until they are several years of age. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis as early as possible in your child’s life so appropriate therapies and treatments can be administered. Take our short quiz to see if your child has signs of CP.