What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy—or CP for short—is the name of a group of permanent, non-progressive disorders. These disorders are caused by either abnormal development of the brain or damage to the developing brain. CP is a motor disability, which means the neurological interference from abnormal development or damage impacts a child’s ability to control his or her muscles. About 1 in 345 children in the United States have been identified as having CP.

While CP is defined by motor disabilities, it is important to know that other serious medical concerns can arise in conjunction with CP depending upon the severity and location of the brain damage. Some of these include vision and hearing problems, intellectual issues including low IQ’s and poor executive decision making, difficulties with speech and difficulties with swallowing, to name a few.

What are the Types of Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral Palsy is actually an umbrella term that refers to three different afflictions. These are:

  • Spastic cerebral palsy. This causes stiffness and movement difficulties.
  • Dyskinetic, or athetoid, cerebral palsy. This causes uncontrolled movements.
  • Ataxic cerebral palsy. This causes a problem with balance and depth perception.

Over 80% of all people diagnosed with CP have some degree of spasticity, making it the most common form of CP. Even so, a person’s condition can be so mild that walking might simply look a bit awkward, or it might be so severe that walking is impossible.

Is Cerebral Palsy Genetic?

New studies show that certain genes can contribute to an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy. While CP is not hereditary, some hereditary factors can predispose a baby to cerebral palsy, which may require careful attention during pregnancy if these risk factors are known.

Is Cerebral Palsy Genetic?

New studies show that certain genes can contribute to an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy. While CP is not hereditary, some hereditary factors can predispose a baby to cerebral palsy, which may require careful attention during pregnancy if these risk factors are known.

collage of children with cerebral palsy

What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy can result from either abnormal brain development or injury to the brain during pregnancy or at birth. Congenital cerebral palsy—CP related to factors that happened before or during birth—is the most common cause of a CP diagnosis. However, approximately 20% of CP cases are caused by babies being deprived of sufficient oxygen during labor and delivery. It is well established that medical malpractice is sometimes to blame.

An OBGYN’s negligence during the prenatal period, for example, might be in the form of a delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of a medical condition in the mother that can also have consequences to the baby’s developing brain. When it comes to birth injuries, there are many different causes—or even a combination of factors—that can result in cerebral palsy:

  • Traumatic brain injury secondary to allowing labor to continue beyond a reasonable period of time
  • Mismanagement of labor or delivery
  • Delayed delivery or C-section, causing lack of oxygen or blood to the brain
  • Spinal cord injuries and autonomic dysreflexia
  • Improper use of tools such as forceps or vacuum extractor
  • Failure to monitor or recognize signs of fetal distress
  • Hypoxic brain injury

Sometimes, a hypoxic brain injury, such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, or HIE for short, may be caused by the medical team’s errors or negligence at delivery. Errors might include:

  • Mismanagement of labor and delivery, such as allowing labor to continue for too long and/or misuse of a medication to make contractions stronger called Oxytocin or Pitocin
  • Insufficient monitoring of mother and/or baby
  • Incorrect interpretation of fetal monitoring data
  • Failing to identify umbilical cord issues
  • Failing to notice or respond to signs of fetal distress

What Are The Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy?

While it is not always easy or possible to determine the cause of cerebral palsy, some events or problems during pregnancy or during birth can increase the risk of congenital cerebral palsy:

  • Low birth weight. Preterm infants less than 1500 grams or term infants with low birth weight, typically less than the tenth percentile for gestational age, have a higher risk of CP than babies with higher birth weights.
  • Infections during pregnancy. If a mother develops an infection such as rubella or toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, it can lead to fetal brain damage.
  • Toxic chemical exposure. The mercury found in some seafood is one exposure factor that can increase the risk of CP.
  • Jaundice. Jaundice is often a sign that a baby’s liver is not working correctly. In most cases, jaundice is not serious, but severe cases can cause damage to the brain that results in CP.

Significant advancements have been made in treating cerebral palsy, but it’s important to know the risk factors for cerebral palsy when you’re pregnant. Still, even if you’ve done your best to reduce your risks, it is possible for your child to develop CP through medical negligence. If you think this may be the case with your pregnancy or labor, you may be eligible for compensation for birth injury medical malpractice.

collage of children with cerebral palsy

Can Cerebral Palsy be Cured?

CP is a permanent condition—while its symptoms can change, it typically does not worsen over time. Once your child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, it is important to begin both treatment and therapy as soon as possible. Early intervention for children with CP can potentially minimize symptoms of the disorder and will help improve your child’s quality of life.

In determining the severity of your child’s CP, medical professionals will look at your child’s ability to communicate, move, and successfully handle objects. There are five levels of severity for each type of cerebral palsy, and each level of disability ranges from light to severe. One example of this is the Communication Function Classification system:

  • Level 1. In most situations, a child has little to no problem listening and speaking effectively with others.
  • Level 2. A child is able to listen and speak independently, but at a slower pace than normal.
  • Level 3. A child has difficulty communicating with individuals they are not comfortable and/or familiar with but can communicate quite effectively with individuals they are more accustomed to.
  • Level 4. A child is not always capable of communicating with familiar individuals as well as unfamiliar.
  • Level 5. A child has great difficulty communicating with anyone, including familiar individuals such as family members.

Can You Live a Normal Life with Cerebral Palsy?

The effects of CP on children are as varied as the children themselves. So, too, are the methods for treating those children. Treatment of CP can include physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, or psychotherapy. The more you know about existing treatments for CP as well as innovations in cerebral palsy treatments and therapies before meeting with your child’s doctor, the better prepared you’ll be to determine what treatment is best for your child. Varieties of treatments are available, including:

  • Medication. Prescription medications for spasticity, pain, and seizures are commonly used to treat the symptoms of CP.
  • Surgery. Surgical interventions may be needed to help improve your child’s quality of life, such as correcting hip dysplasia or addressing bone deformities.
  • Therapies. Ongoing therapies can be used to rehabilitate muscles, improve function, and help children develop skills needed for increased independence and improved quality of life.
  • Stem cell therapy. The goal of stem cell treatment is to repair the damage to the brain that has resulted in your child’s CP.

How Long Can You Live with Cerebral Palsy?

Advances in the management and treatment of cerebral palsy mean that today the life expectancy for people with CP is almost the same as the general population, but cerebral palsy will affect your child throughout their lifetime. Children with cerebral palsy will likely need assistance for their entire lives, which is why a Life Care Plan is a good—and sometimes necessary—idea. A Life Care Plan is an important tool because it details the unique physical and financial needs of your child’s situation. It will account for a number of different needs your child will have throughout their lifetime:

  • Medical care/routine
  • Future medical care
  • Surgical intervention/aggressive treatments
  • Home care/facilities
  • Evaluations
  • Therapies
  • Diagnostic testing/educational assessments
  • Medications/supply needs
  • Home furnishings/accessories
  • Transportation
  • Wheelchairs/assistive devices
  • Aids for independent functioning
  • Orthotics/prosthetics
  • Health/strength maintenance

Though incredible advances have been made in recent years that allow children with CP to live long, full lives, people with cerebral palsy may experience premature aging. The signs of advanced age begin to appear much earlier in adults with CP, sometimes before they turn 40, leading to some common issues:

  • Increased pain
  • Early-onset arthritis
  • Difficulty walking
  • Dental health issues
  • Difficulty eating/swallowing
  • Long-term effects of medication
  • Injuries from falls
  • Other health problems

The lifelong effects of CP can create enduring emotional and financial burdens on the person living with CP, as well as their family. When medical negligence causes your child’s CP, a Life Care Plan helps the judge or jury decide how much money your family should receive to take care of your child, for life. This includes everyday needs like diapers and wheelchairs, or long-term needs such as education and major surgeries.

What Are The Signs of Cerebral Palsy in Babies?

Early signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy are identified through the use of a screening tool known as the Apgar score. This newborn screening test assesses a baby’s muscle tone, heart rate, and other areas to determine if intervening medical care might be required. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Appearance or skin color
  • Pulse or heart rate
  • Grimace response or reflexes
  • Activity or muscle tone
  • Respiration or breathing rate and effort

Each category receives a score of 0, 1, or 2, as assessed at one and five minutes of a baby’s life (in circumstances where a baby is very depressed at birth and not responding well to resuscitative measures, these scores are continued at each additional five minutes of life). Scores in the 7-10 range at five minutes typically indicate a baby with a low risk of developing CP later in life.

While a cerebral palsy diagnosis can happen in the earlier stages of a child’s life, including even within weeks of their birth, a diagnosis typically requires months of careful observations, making diagnosing newborns with cerebral palsy difficult. Often, children with cerebral palsy are diagnosed between 18 and 24 months of age, but it may be diagnosed even earlier when parents know what signs of cerebral palsy to look for:

  • Delay in ability to hold up head
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stiffness (hypertonic) or floppiness (hypotonic) when picked up
  • Legs get stiff or cross when picked up
  • Overextension of back and neck when held, as though they are pushing away from you
  • Cortical thumbs (thumbs persistently bent toward the center of the palm)
  • Feeding or swallowing difficulties
  • Tends to use one side of their body more

Children’s development has been analyzed for decades, and their predicted growth has been separated into several milestones that define what the “average” developmental timeline should look like for a young child. We have turned these milestones into a short quiz, which you can use to compare your child’s growth to the developmental milestones based on your child’s age. Our short milestone quiz can help you determine whether your child might have cerebral palsy and, depending on the results, help you figure out what next steps you should take. Our quiz will give you a better idea whether your child has CP, but it is not an official diagnostic tool. You should still schedule a formal consultation with a certified physician if you are worried about your child’s development.

Can You Walk with Cerebral Palsy?

Many children with CP struggle with movement and experience difficulty with standing, walking, and using stairs. Physical therapy is designed to address physical challenges and to help increase strength and control in order to minimize muscle atrophy or contracture. Physical therapy can help them master the use of assistive equipment, such as leg braces or a wheelchair. By increasing control of their own body, children with cerebral palsy have a greater chance of increasing the life-long motor skills needed for daily living and overall independence.

A physical therapist in conjunction with a medical doctor can assess your child and determine a treatment plan based on the child’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals in a number of areas:

  • Muscle tone
  • Balance
  • Motor skills
  • Mobility
  • Flexibility
  • Hand-eye coordination

What Should I Do If I Think My Child Has Cerebral Palsy?

If you detect any signs of cerebral palsy in your child, consult with your child’s healthcare provider as soon as possible for a health exam and testing. The sooner a baby is diagnosed with CP, the earlier they can begin treatment and therapy. Treatment and therapy are critical to ensure a child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional potential for their health and well-being in the future, and early detection is key. Obtaining early appropriate interventions and therapies is the best chance for a high quality of life for individuals with cerebral palsy:

  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Family counseling
  • Training for parents
  • Assistive technology
  • Transportation Assistance

Early diagnosis of CP caused by birth injury is also important for legal reasons. Families of injured infants may be entitled to compensation that will help them pay for the treatment, therapy, and lifestyle adjustment resources that can greatly improve the quality of life for children with cerebral palsy.

In medical malpractice cases, compensation is available for medical expenses, lost earning capacity, pain and suffering, and more. While it may be hard to imagine now, the lifetime medical costs of treating CP can be monumental. Additional concerns include the lost wages for family caretakers, or other compensation allowed for by law—such as emotional distress.

Did Medical Malpractice Cause Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy?

When your child is diagnosed with cerebral palsy and you believe the condition was caused by medical malpractice, you may feel confused about what to do next. The sooner you speak with an attorney about your case, the sooner they can start gathering evidence to determine if your parental instincts match the law’s requirements. Cerebral palsy treatments and support services can have a significant impact on your family’s finances. If you think medical malpractice may be the cause of your child’s cerebral palsy, you might consider seeking legal help.

The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC have consulted with over 30,000 families nationwide. We call upon our legal and medical experience to uncover the truth and recover the compensation families deserve. If your child suffered from medical malpractice that led to HIE and cerebral palsy, contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.



Giles Manley
Reviewed by:
Giles H. Manley, M.D., J.D., F.A.C.O.G. | CPFN Medical Advisor
Board-Certified OBGYN | Medical Malpractice Attorney

Dr. Manley has delivered over 2,000 babies and uses his wealth of medical knowledge to uncover medical errors that were missed by others (keep in mind most CP cases involve errors committed at or around the time of birth). READ FULL BIO

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