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Cerebral Palsy - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

08 Jun 2020

What is cerebral palsy?

A cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect normal movement in different parts of the body. This condition can cause problems with posture, manner of walking (gait), muscle tone, and coordination of movement.

The word “cerebral” refers to the brain’s cerebrum, which is the part of the brain that regulates motor function. “Palsy” describes the paralysis of voluntary movement in certain parts of the body.

There are several types of cerebral palsy that are characterized by the location of the brain injury. Symptoms can vary depending on where and how badly the brain was damaged.

The types of cerebral palsy include:

  • Ataxic cerebral palsy:This type is caused by cerebellum damage resulting in issues with motor control and movement.

  • Athetoid/dyskinetic cerebral palsy: Caused by basal ganglia and/or cerebellum damage; symptoms include fluctuating muscle tone and involuntary movements.
  • Hypotonic cerebral palsy:This rare type, also caused by cerebellum damage, is characterized by floppy muscles, excess flexibility, and poor mobility.
  • Spastic cerebral palsy:The most common type of cerebral palsy, caused by damage to the motor cortex or pyramidal tracts and characterized by tight muscles and jerking movements.
  • Mixed cerebral palsy:Multiple areas of brain damage can cause patients to have more than one type of cerebral palsy.

Depending on how the condition is managed, motor skills can improve or worsen over time. While symptoms and severity vary from case to case, there are many medical and support options to help children with cerebral palsy lead fulfilling lives.

Causes of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the fetal or infant brain. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the brain damage, but there are several factors that may cause a child to develop the condition.

Common cerebral palsy causes include:

  • Bacterial and viral infections such as meningitis

  • Bleeding in the brain (hemorrhaging)
  • Head injuries sustained during birth or within the first few years of infancy
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain (asphyxia) before, during, or after birth
  • Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol
  • Prenatal exposure to raw/undercooked meat or fish

If the brain is damaged within the first 5 years of life, it may not develop properly.

Damage to the parts of the brain that control motor function can cause children to struggle with muscle tone, posture, balance, and movement.

Cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence

Some children develop cerebral palsy as the result of a birth injury caused by medical malpractice or negligence. These cerebral palsy cases stem from inadequate care from medical professionals during the childbirth process.

Examples of medical negligence that can lead to cerebral palsy include:

  • Failure to detect and/or properly treat infections

  • Failure to detect changes in fetal heart rate
  • Failure to schedule or perform a medically advisable cesarean section (C-section)
  • Failure to detect a prolapsed umbilical cord (which can cut off oxygen to the baby)
  • Improper use of delivery tools, such as vacuum extractors and forceps

Medical professionals are trained to provide a high quality of care to their patients in the delivery room. Those who fail to do so should be held responsible for their actions.

Cerebral palsy signs & symptoms

Cerebral palsy in babies can cause numerous physical and neurological symptoms that can greatly affect a child's development. These cerebral palsy symptoms can differ for each child depending on the severity and location of the brain damage.

Physical symptoms

  • Contractures (shortening of muscles)

  • Drooling
  • Exaggerated or jerky reflexes
  • Floppy muscle tone
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Incontinence
  • Involuntary movements or tremors
  • Lack of coordination and balance
  • Problems swallowing or sucking
  • Problems with movement on one side of the body
  • Stiff muscles (spasticity)

Neurological symptoms

  • Buildup of cranial pressure due to fluid imbalance (hydrocephalus)

  • Behavioral problems
  • Delayed motor skill development
  • Difficulty with speech and language (dysarthria)
  • Sensory impairments
  • Visual/hearing impairments

Parents and caregivers should monitor the timeline of their child’s developmental milestones, as babies with cerebral palsy may have developmental delays that go unnoticed.

Cerebral palsy and coexisting conditions

Damage to the developing brain can cause an array of health complications that are not a direct result of cerebral palsy. As a result, babies with cerebral palsy may also experience coexisting conditions.

Conditions that may occur alongside cerebral palsy include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Chronic pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Mental health disorders
  • Speech disorders
  • Vision or hearing impairments

Cerebral palsy diagnosis

Cerebral palsy is usually diagnosed anywhere between 18 months and 5 years of age. Although parents and caregivers may be the first to notice signs of cerebral palsy in infants, doctors often hesitate to make an immediate diagnosis until further symptoms can be observed as the child gets older.

A cerebral palsy diagnosis is made using imaging tests to look for brain damage.

Imaging tests used to diagnose cerebral palsy include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans

  • Cranial ultrasounds
  • Electroencephalograms (EEG)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans

It’s important to see a specialist if you think your child is showing developmental signs of cerebral palsy. A cerebral palsy specialist can examine your child and run tests to diagnose their condition.

Parents can begin managing their child’s condition and start any necessary treatment once a diagnosis is made. 

Cerebral palsy risk factors

There are several elements that may put some children at a higher risk of developing cerebral palsy.

There is no way to fully prevent a child from developing cerebral palsy. That said, there are several preventive measures that parents and doctors can take to reduce the risk of delivering a baby with cerebral palsy.

Routine doctor visits throughout pregnancy are crucial to catching any complications and cerebral palsy risk factors. Consistent check-ups can help detect issues — such as incompatible blood types between mother and child — and reduce the risk of complications.

Expectant mothers can also reduce the risks by:

  • Avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs, and prescription drugs known to pose risks during pregnancy

  • Avoiding exposure to infections or viruses known to impact fetal health (for example, German measles, cytomegalovirus, and Zika)
  • Controlling underlying health issues, such as blood pressure, diabetes, etc.
  • Getting routinely vaccinated
  • Identifying any potential Rh incompatibility (difference in presence of red blood cell proteins) between mother and child, which could lead to hemolytic anemia or jaundice

There are also steps that can be taken during childbirth to prevent cerebral palsy. It is essential for parents to be prepared and informed about the birthing process.

Medical staff will monitor fetal vital signs and determine the safest delivery method. If you feel you or your child is at risk, alert a doctor immediately. Any delay in medical attention may increase the chance of your child developing cerebral palsy at birth.

Cerebral palsy prognosis

A cerebral palsy prognosis predicts the long-term effects the condition may have on a child’s mobility, development, and overall quality of life. Doctors will make a prognosis by examining motor skills, reflexes, and developmental milestones in an infant with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy does not generally affect life expectancy. Cerebral palsy adults are able to live fulfilling lives, but there are some factors that may affect prognosis.

Factors affecting a cerebral palsy prognosis include:

  • Difficulties eating and swallowing

  • Impairments in vision, hearing, or speech
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Mobility limitations
  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Seizures

Physical symptoms and motor skills may improve or worsen over time depending on how the condition is managed. Proper treatment of physical and neurological symptoms may improve prognosis and manage any pain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report which relied on data from over 1,300 studies of people with cerebral palsy.

The report found that of people with cerebral palsy:

  • 1 in 2 have some form of intellectual disability

  • 1 in 3 are unable to walk
  • 1 in 4 are unable to speak

Cerebral palsy treatment

There are several methods used to treat cerebral palsy symptoms.

Cerebral palsy treatment is not focused on curing or fully correcting a child’s condition. Once a child has developed cerebral palsy, it cannot be cured. Instead, treatment focuses on nurturing a child’s remaining skills to reduce symptoms and encourage an independent life.

Actively treating the symptoms of cerebral palsy is the best way to ensure a child's highest quality of life as they transition into adulthood. Your doctor will create a treatment plan that caters to your child’s specific needs.

Cerebral palsy babies may require early medical intervention to help brain development. There are more opportunities to correct or improve some of the child’s mobility limitations during this time.


Medication may be used to treat some symptoms of cerebral palsy, including involuntary movement, seizures, and spasticity.

Common classes of medications for children with cerebral palsy include:

  • Anticholinergics (neurotransmitter blockers)

  • Anticonvulsants (suppress neurons that cause seizures)
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-inflammatories (reduce pain and inflammation)
  • Baclofen (muscle relaxer)
  • Benzodiazepines (treats anxiety, seizures, and insomnia)
  • Botox (treats spasticity)
  • Nerve blocks
  • Other muscle relaxants
  • Stool softeners

Medication may also be used to treat secondary disorders caused by cerebral palsy, such as incontinence, acid reflux, behavioral disorders, and more.


There are many different therapy options to help treat cerebral palsy symptoms. Therapy can be used to improve mobility and brain cognition.

  • Physical therapy:Helps relieve pain and muscle stiffness, as well as improve balance, coordination, and overall mobility. Physical therapists will use specialized equipment to help your child move more freely and live more independently.
  • Occupational therapy:Helps children with cerebral palsy learn how to complete everyday tasks and activities by improving fine motor skills and cognitive abilities.
  • Speech therapy:Helps children to improve their communication and language skills. This type of therapy gives children the confidence to learn and socialize. Speech therapy can also help children who have difficulty eating and swallowing.
  • Alternative therapy:Helps children focus on themselves as individuals and lets them overcome physical and mental obstacles. Alternative therapy includes hippotherapy (which involves riding horses), music therapy, aquatic therapy, acupuncture, and more.


Surgery may be recommended for children with severe mobility and muscle issues. Surgery for cerebral palsy can correct or improve issues with movement in the legs, ankles, feet, hips, wrists, and arms. Muscles, tendons, bones, and nerves are operated on to improve movement in these areas of the body.

Cerebral palsy surgery can:

  • Correct fixed joints and tendons

  • Correct foot deformities
  • Correct muscle contractures
  • Correct spinal curvatures (scoliosis)
  • Improve balance and coordination
  • Improve posture
  • Prevent hip dislocation
  • Prevent spinal deformities
  • Reduce tremors
  • Relieve pain
  • Relieve stiff muscles
  • Treat co-occurring conditions

Assistive devices

Specialized assistive devices can help individuals with cerebral palsy that experienced issues with communication, hearing, and vision.

Types of assistive devices include:

  • Cochlear implants

  • Electronic communication boards
  • Eye-tracking devices
  • Typing aids
  • Writing aids

Mobility aids

Children with mobility limitations may benefit from assistive technology that can be adjusted to their individual needs. Mobility aids aim to help children with cerebral palsy move freely and can greatly improve their quality of life and independence.

Types of mobility aids include:

  • Canes

  • Crutches
  • Lifts
  • Power scooters
  • Orthotic devices
  • Standers
  • Walkers
  • Walking sticks
  • Wheelchairs

Get help paying for your child’s treatment

Many families feel overwhelmed and unprepared to pay for the costs of care that come with living with cerebral palsy. Thankfully, there are many options to help families pay for treatment costs and other expenses.

Cerebral palsy financial assistance is available from charity groups or foundations to alleviate any burdens placed on your family so you can focus on getting your child quality care. There are also several forms of government assistance that can help cover treatment costs.

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