Cerebral palsy is a problem with muscle function. It is caused by brain injury or abnormal development of the brain that occurs while a child's brain is still developing. This may be before the baby is born, during the birth or soon after birth.
Most people think of cerebral palsy as causing severe problems with movement but the symptoms and disabilities range from mild to severe. Some people with cerebral palsy also have other problems such as learning difficulties and epilepsy.
What are the symptoms and problems?
The symptoms and disabilities caused by cerebral palsy will depend on the type of cerebral palsy and the area of the brain affected. A child with cerebral palsy may have difficulty with moving, talking, eating or playing. The symptoms of cerebral palsy depend on the exact part of the brain that is affected.
What are the different types of cerebral palsy?
Spastic cerebral palsy
Spastic means that the affected muscles are stiffer than normal. The symptoms may affect:
- The leg and arm of one side of the body (called hemiplegia).
- Both legs (called diplegia). The arms are either not affected or are only mildly affected.
- Both arms and legs (called quadriplegia).
Athetoid, or dyskinetic, cerebral palsy
Some people with this type of cerebral palsy have slow, writhing movements of the hands, arms, feet, or legs. Some people have sudden muscle spasms. These movements cannot be controlled and so are called involuntary.
Ataxic cerebral palsy
People with ataxic cerebral palsy have difficulties with balance and fine movement. This can cause a loss of balance or being unsteady when walking. It could also make doing fine tasks difficult, such as writing.
Mixed cerebral palsy
People with mixed cerebral palsy have a combination of two or three of the above types.
Read more about the symptoms and different types of cerebral palsy.
Are there associated problems?
People with cerebral palsy often have other problems as well as difficulty with movement. These may include learning difficulty, speech problems, epilepsy or problems with hearing, vision, eating and drinking.
What causes it?
The cause of the damage to the brain is not always known.
- Genetic factors may play a part. Genetic means that the condition is passed on through families through special codes inside cells called genes. Some factors are known to increase the risk of developing cerebral palsy.
- The cause of cerebral palsy may occur during pregnancy, during the birth or shortly after the birth.
Find out more about the causes of cerebral palsy.
How common is cerebral palsy?
- About 1 in 1,000 babies in the UK who are of normal birth weight have cerebral palsy.
- For low birth-weight babies (less than 2500 g) the figure is about 1 in 60.
The overall number of cases per year (the incidence) has not changed much over the period of 50 years or so.
How is it diagnosed?
Babies with severe cerebral palsy may have signs at birth that are obvious, such as very abnormal muscle stiffness (tone). However, most children are diagnosed between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. The first thing that is usually noticed is that a child is not developing at the normal rate.
There are variations and some babies are normal but late developers. However, a child who is late in these developmental milestones should usually be assessed for cerebral palsy. The diagnosis can usually be made by a child specialist, from the symptoms, signs and delay in development. Additional tests such as a brain scan may be done.
Read more about the diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
How is it treated?
Children with cerebral palsy should be under the care of a team of specialists able to provide a very wide range of advice and therapy. There is no cure for cerebral palsy but much can be done to limit the degree of disability that may have occurred if treatment had not been given.
Find out more about the treatments for cerebral palsy.
What is the outlook for people with cerebral palsy?
Because the severity of cerebral palsy can range from mild to severe, it is difficult to predict the future for each individual. Your team of specialists will be able to give advice. Treatments such as physiotherapy and speech therapy can make a big difference to the eventual outcome.
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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