What causes cerebral palsy?
For more than half of all people with cerebral palsy, the cause occurs between 24 weeks of pregnancy and the birth. This is the period when there is a great deal of brain development. The brain is therefore particularly sensitive to any damage during this period.
For many people with cerebral palsy, the cause of the damage to the brain is not known. Genetic factors may play a part. Genetic means that the condition is passed on through families through special codes inside cells called genes.
The underlying cause of cerebral palsy does not get worse (progress). However, the effect on the body does often progress so that the symptoms gradually become worse.
Many other factors are known to increase the risk of developing cerebral palsy. These include:
Factors during pregnancy (antenatal)
- Preterm birth (premature babies) - in particular, babies born before 28 weeks of pregnancy.
- Babies who are part of twins, triplets, or more.
- Babies with abnormalities (congenital malformations).
- Infections of the pregnant mother, such as rubella, chickenpox and toxoplasmosis, may be a cause in some cases.
- There is an increased risk of having a child with cerebral palsy in mothers who smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, or take street drugs such as cocaine.
Factors around the time of birth (perinatal)
- Severe infection in the baby or the mother.
- Damage to the baby's brain around the time of the birth.
Factors after birth (postnatal)
- Severe infection - for example, sepsis or meningitis.
- Severe jaundice in a newborn baby.
- Bleeding into the brain (intracranial haemorrhage).
- Injury (trauma).
It was thought that problems with labour and delivery were the main cause of cerebral palsy. However, this is now known to be incorrect. It is thought that less than 1 case in 10 is due to problems around the birth of a baby. For example, severe prolonged lack of oxygen during birth may be a cause in a small number of cases.
Further reading and references
Cerebral palsy in under 25s: assessment and management; NICE Guidance (January 2017)
Spasticity in children and young people; NICE Clinical Guideline (July 2012, updated Nov 2016)
Hadders-Algra M; Early diagnosis and early intervention in cerebral palsy. Front Neurol. 2014 Sep 245:185. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2014.00185. eCollection 2014.
Fairhurst C; Cerebral palsy: the whys and hows. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed. 2012 Aug97(4):122-31. doi: 10.1136/edpract-2011-300593.
Surman G, Hemming K, Platt MJ, et al; Children with cerebral palsy: severity and trends over time. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2009 Nov23(6):513-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3016.2009.01060.x.
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