This article has been fact checked by a Board Certified Pediatrician. Sources of information for the article are listed at the bottom.
For any content issues please Contact Us.
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a neurological condition caused by brain damage, and it is the most common motor and movement disability of childhood. If your child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, you need to know what to expect. Get the answers to all of your questions so that you can make informed decisions about diagnosis, treatment, therapies, and legal action.
What Is Cerebral Palsy?
As an umbrella term, cerebral palsy refers to a group of symptoms and disabilities. They are all related, but each child will have a unique and individual experience of cerebral palsy.
Some of the potential issues a child with cerebral palsy may face include:
- Movement and walking disabilities
- Speech difficulties
- Learning disabilities
- Cognitive impairments
- Hearing or vision loss
- Emotional and behavioral challenges
- Spinal deformities
- Joint problems
Cerebral palsy affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. There is no cure, but treatments and therapies can make a big difference.
CP Quick Facts
- Cerebral palsy is a group of neurological disorders and disabilities, not just one condition, and all can cause some degree of disability in movement, balance, and posture.
- Cerebral palsy is the most common movement and motor disability in children. One in approximately 345 kids has CP.
- About 80 percent of children with the condition have spastic cerebral palsy, which causes increased muscle tone.
- More than half of children diagnosed with cerebral palsy can walk independently.
- Most children with CP also have other conditions. Epilepsy is a common co-occurring condition.
- The main cause of cerebral palsy is brain damage that occurs in a developing fetus or during birth.
- Cerebral palsy is more common in boys than in girls.
Lifelong Financial Assistance for Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy
What Causes Cerebral Palsy?
Brain damage is the cause of CP, but many different things can trigger damage. For this reason, the exact cause of cerebral palsy can’t always be determined. Possibilities include:
- Poor brain development in the womb
- Maternal infections or medical conditions
- Disruption of blood flow to the developing brain
- Genetic conditions
- Ingestion of toxins or drugs during pregnancy
- Damage to the head or skull during delivery
- Complications related to premature delivery
Could My Doctor Be Responsible for My Child’s Cerebral Palsy?
Yes, it is possible that negligent medical mistakes caused brain damage during pregnancy or childbirth and lead to cerebral palsy.
In some cases, errors are not negligent and could not have been prevented; however, negligent mistakes that may be considered malpractice include:
- Anything that deprives a baby of oxygen during birth
- Excessively forceful use of forceps or a vacuum extractor
- Failure to order a Cesarean section or perform one in time to prevent brain damage
- Failure to monitor fetal development during pregnancy or distress during labor
- Inadequate treatment of maternal health conditions during pregnancy
Types of Cerebral Palsy
There are four types of cerebral palsy:
1. Spastic Cerebral Palsy
Spastic cerebral palsy accounts for 75 percent of all cases. It causes increased muscle tone, known as spasticity, and other symptoms:
- Delayed developmental milestones for moving
- Abnormal movements
- Movement inhibition
- Stiff and spastic muscles
- Difficulties controlling muscle movement
- Problems moving from one position to another
Spastic quadriplegia impacts a child’s upper and lower limbs and body, severely restricting mobility.
Spastic diplegia only affects the lower half of the body. Many of these children can still walk with some impairments and may need assistive devices such as walkers.
Spastic hemiplegia affects one side of the body only, usually the arm more than the leg. Most children with hemiplegia can walk.
2. Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the second most common type of CP. Symptoms include:
- Dystonia, repetitive and twisting motions
- Athetosis, writhing movements
- Chorea, unpredictable movements
- Poor posture
- Painful movements
- Difficulty swallowing or talking
3. Ataxic Cerebral Palsy
Ataxic cerebral palsy is the least common. It causes poor balance, limited coordination, tremors, and shaky movements that are difficult to control.
4. Mixed Cerebral Palsy
Mixed cerebral palsy causes symptoms characteristic of two or three of the other types. Spastic-dyskinetic cerebral palsy is the most common type of mixed CP.
How Do I Know if My Child Has Cerebral Palsy?
Some of the signs of cerebral palsy in an infant or toddler are:
- Delays in movements and motor skills, such as holding head up, rolling over, sitting, crawling, and walking
- Body parts that are too stiff or floppy
- Favoring one side of the body
- Scooting on the bottom instead of crawling
- Inability to stand, even with support
Always consult your child’s pediatrician if you notice unusual symptoms, even if you aren’t sure they are caused by cerebral palsy. Early intervention is critical when helping children with cerebral palsy.
How Is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?
There is no single or simple test for cerebral palsy. It takes time and multiple tests and observations to get an accurate diagnosis and to rule out other conditions.
Your pediatrician can either make a diagnosis or recommend a specialist if you suspect your child has any issues with motor development, muscle tone, or coordination and balance.
Doctors look for spastic movements, abnormal muscle movements, delayed development, and poor coordination when diagnosing cerebral palsy.
Can Cerebral Palsy Be Prevented?
There is no foolproof way to prevent CP, but there are steps you can take to lower the risk:
- Before pregnancy, eat well and have any pre-existing medical problems under control.
- While pregnant, continue with these healthy habits and take recommended prenatal vitamins.
- See your obstetrician for regular checkups throughout pregnancy.
- Get screened for potential complications.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to predict when an infant will suffer brain damage due to negligence. The best you can do is choose your doctors carefully and advocate for your own healthcare and that of your child.
Can Cerebral Palsy Be Cured?
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but it will also not get worse with time. This is not a progressive disease, and early therapies and treatments can reduce symptoms and disabilities while also improving mobility.
How Is Cerebral Palsy Treated?
A variety of treatment options can improve symptoms and quality of life for babies and children. Many interventions can be started immediately after receiving a diagnosis.
Various medications help control spastic movements, seizures, relieve pain, and manage other symptoms and related conditions:
- Baclofen or other muscle relaxants
- Stool softeners/laxatives
- Sleep aids
Surgery is a critical part of treatment for many children with CP. Surgical procedures may improve mobility or manage pain. Standard procedures include tendon or muscle release, the repair of hip dislocations, and scoliosis surgery.
Several different types of therapies are used for children and babies with cerebral palsy. They can improve physical, mental, social, and learning deficits. If started early, therapies for cerebral palsy can reduce impairment and lessen the risk of developing other associated conditions.
Common types of therapy used to help children with cerebral palsy are:
- Horse and animal
- Bowel program
What Is the Life Expectancy for Cerebral Palsy?
Many children diagnosed with cerebral palsy have the same life expectancy as any other. This wasn’t always true, but earlier diagnosis and better therapies have improved many health conditions for these children.
While CP does not usually shorten life expectancy, it does require early intervention and good medical care for the best outcomes. This is especially true for those with severe disabilities.
Some of the conditions associated with cerebral palsy can be life-threatening if not treated. These include breathing and swallowing difficulties (which can cause pneumonia or malnutrition), seizures, chronic nutritional deficiencies, or life-threatening pressure infections.
Will Cerebral Palsy Cause Other Health Problems?
Cerebral palsy does not necessarily cause other conditions, but several health issues often co-occur with it. Many kids with CP have at least one co-existing condition:
- Hearing deficits
- Vision impairment
- Cognitive disability
- Behavioral, emotional issues
- Feeding problems and nutritional deficiencies
- Gastric reflux
- Joint problems
- Sleep disorders
What Is the Prognosis for Cerebral Palsy?
The prognosis for cerebral palsy depends on individual factors, but except in severe cases, most children can grow up to live a normal life. Many children with cerebral palsy have average or above-average intelligence and are mobile with or without assistance.
Most children with CP go to school with their peers. They may need special education accommodations, such as assistance with communication, hearing or vision aids, and speech and language therapy.
Most children with CP grow up to function as independent adults. Those with more severe disabilities may need lifelong care and supervision.
What If I Can’t Afford My Child’s Care?
The care required for a child with special needs can be costly. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the average cost is $921,000.
This doesn’t include out-of-pocket expenses or lost wages. If you find yourself struggling, there are several options to try:
- Your child may qualify for cash assistance from the government. This falls under section 111.000 of the Social Security disability insurance program.
- Those approved for cash assistance from the Social Security Administration (SSA) usually also qualify for full medical insurance at little to no charge.
- You may also qualify for free or reduced child care under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or educational assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004.
- If your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical negligence, you have the option to file for compensation from the responsible party through legal action.
How Do I Know if My Child’s Cerebral Palsy Was Caused by Medical Negligence?
Medical negligence occurs when a doctor or another healthcare professional causes preventable harm to a patient by failing to provide an accepted standard of care. Incidents in which negligence may have caused CP include but are not limited to:
- A doctor failing to diagnose a maternal condition that led to brain injuries
- A doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional failing to monitor and treat maternal or fetal distress
- Improper use of tools to assist in the birthing process
- The doctor failing to schedule an emergency C-section when indicated by fetal distress
- A doctor failing to detect and treat infant hypoxia, jaundice, or infection, leading to brain damage
Malpractice cases are complicated. There has to be enough evidence to start a case. Specific guidelines set by state laws have to be met first. Only a qualified lawyer or law firm with malpractice experience can tell you if you have a case.
What Is the United Cerebral Palsy?
United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) is a non-profit organization that helps people with cerebral palsy. Assistance from UCP comes from over 80 national affiliates and includes help with transportation, housing, recreational activities, traveling, health awareness, assistive technologies, advocacy in education, and more.
According to the official UCP site, “UCP educates, advocates and provides support services to ensure a life without limits for people with a spectrum of disabilities. UCP works to advance the independence, productivity and full citizenship of people with disabilities through an affiliate network that has helped millions.”
Lifelong Financial Assistance for Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the main cause of cerebral palsy?
The leading, underlying cause of cerebral palsy is damage or an abnormality in the brain that disrupts normal development. There are many potential causes of brain damage, from maternal infections that impact fetal development to lack of oxygen during labor and delivery to an accident that causes traumatic brain injury in a baby. The causes can be broadly categorized as congenital and acquired. Congenital causes occur during fetal development, birth, or shortly after birth, while acquired causes are events that occur a month or more after birth.
Can you walk with cerebral palsy?
The symptoms and disabilities associated with cerebral palsy vary from one individual to another and depend on the severity of the initial brain injury or abnormality. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 50 and 60 percent of children with cerebral palsy can walk independently. Approximately ten percent need a handheld device for mobility, such as a walker. About 30 percent of children with cerebral palsy cannot walk or can walk only with severe limitations.
How long can you live with cerebral palsy?
The life expectancy of a child with cerebral palsy varies significantly by individual because there is so much variety in symptoms and associated conditions. Those with mild cerebral palsy are likely to have the same life expectancy as the general population. Life expectancy goes down as the severity of the condition increases. The most common causes of death in people with cerebral palsy are respiratory problems, including aspiration and pneumonia.
Can you get cerebral palsy later in life?
The majority of causes of cerebral palsy are congenital, meaning the brain damage that causes the condition occurs during pregnancy, birth, or shortly after birth. Some studies have shown that between 10 and 15 percent of cases were acquired and happened in the first few years of a child’s life. The leading causes in these cases were car accidents that caused brain injury and infections like meningitis. Adults do not develop cerebral palsy.
Can a child grow out of cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition, and there is no cure. However, cerebral palsy is also not progressive, which means it does not get worse over time. Some of the associated conditions may worsen. Treatments cannot cure cerebral palsy, but they can improve symptoms, functioning, and quality of life.
Does cerebral palsy get worse with age?
Cerebral palsy is not a progressive disease. It does not get worse with age. However, the co-occurring or associated conditions that many people with cerebral palsy have can get worse. Associated conditions may include epilepsy, osteoarthritis, hearing and vision loss, incontinence, malnutrition, dental problems, and speech and language disorders. Appropriate treatments can manage these conditions and prevent them from getting worse.
Can cerebral palsy be cured?
There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but many treatments relieve symptoms, manage associated conditions, and improve function and quality of life. For instance, surgery can reduce pain and improve mobility but is unlikely to restore complete function and movement.
What is the best treatment for cerebral palsy?
The best treatment for cerebral palsy is a combination of strategies that best meet the needs of an individual. Because there is so much variety in symptoms and associated conditions, there is no single treatment or best treatment for cerebral palsy. Some of the typical treatments used include medications, surgery, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and educational interventions.
Does cerebral palsy affect intelligence?
An intellectual disability is a potential associated condition of cerebral palsy. Many children will have average or above-average intelligence, while some will have a disability and lower IQ. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of children with cerebral palsy have some degree of intellectual disability.
Can you live a normal life with cerebral palsy?
Whether or not a child will live a normal life with cerebral palsy depends on the severity of the condition. Those with mild symptoms and disabilities live much like healthy children with the same life expectancy and ability to be independent as adults. More severely disabled children still may live independently later if they have the right treatments, therapies, and support. Some children, those with the most severe disabilities, will need lifelong care.
Lifelong Financial Assistance for Your Child's Birth InjuryGet Help Now
- National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Cerebral Palsy: Hope Through Research.
Retrieved from: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2019, August 17). Cerebral palsy.
Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cerebral-palsy/symptoms-causes/syc-20353999
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 23). 11 Things to Know about Cerebral Palsy
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/features/cerebral-palsy-11-things.html
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d) Cerebral Palsy.
Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/cerebral-palsy
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, April 30). Screening and Diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/diagnosis.html
- National Institutes of Health. (n.d.) What are the early signs of cerebral palsy?
Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cerebral-palsy/conditioninfo/signs
- Novak, I. (2017, September 1). Early, Accurate Diagnosis and Early Intervention in Cerebral Palsy.
Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2636588
- National Institutes of Health. (2016, December 1). What causes cerebral palsy?
Retrieved from: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cerebral-palsy/conditioninfo/causes
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, April 30). Data and Statistics for Cerebral Palsy.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/data.html
- Social Security. (n.d). Benefits for People with Disabilities.
Retrieved from: https://www.ssa.gov/disability/