A Nationwide Birth Injury Resource

Cerebral palsy is a group of permanent movement and muscle control disorders that can be caused when a baby's brain is damaged before, during or shortly following birth. About 10,000 - 12,000 newborn babies develop cerebral palsy each year, making it one of the most common types of birth injuries and the most common movement disorder in children.

The symptoms may change over time, but the underlying problems do not get better or worse. Cerebral palsy can impact brain development, muscle tone, and posture, and it can be difficult to diagnose because parents may not realize their child has the condition until well after their child's birth.

The underlying cause of cerebral palsy is abnormal development or damage to the parts of the brain that control movement and balance. Typically, that damage occurs during pregnancy, birth, or shortly after birth. Many cases of cerebral palsy are preventable if medical professionals follow proper standards of care during prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postnatal care.

Types of cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is not a single disorder but rather a group of closely related disorders. The general types of CP are:

Spastic cerebral palsy: This is by far the most common type of cerebral palsy. Symptoms include stiff muscles and exaggerated reflexes. Children with spastic CP often have walking abnormalities and muscle weakness. It may affect the entire body or just one side of the body.

Dyskinetic cerebral palsy: This type of CP causes trouble controlling body movements, usually in the arms, legs and hands. It can also affect the face and tongue, making it difficult to swallow or talk.

Hypotonic cerebral palsy: Children with hypotonic CP have diminished muscle tone and may appear "floppy." Hypotonic CP can cause problems with head control, breathing, speaking and walking.

Ataxic cerebral palsy: This type of cerebral palsy causes disorganized or jerky movements. Usually, children with ataxic CP have trouble with balance, coordination and fine motor functions.

Mixed cerebral palsy: Some children develop a combination of symptoms from the different types of CP.

Learn more about cerebral palsy

Causes and Risk Factors: Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage that occurs during pregnancy, during birth or immediately after birth. Nearly half of children with cerebral palsy are born prematurely. Complications that occur during pregnancy, such as high blood pressure and infections in the mother's body, can increase the risk of developing cerebral palsy. In other cases, cerebral palsy is caused by trauma, such as a head injury during labor and delivery. Learn more about causes and risk factors for cerebral palsy.

Signs and Symptoms: Every CP diagnosis is different. Common symptoms include stiff or weak muscles, tremors, poor coordination, and problems with speech or sensation. Children with cerebral palsy may have difficulty eating and drinking. Many children with CP also have seizures (epilepsy), learning disabilities and mental health disorders. Symptoms can change over time, and the level of required care will likewise change. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy.

Diagnosing Cerebral Palsy: Severe cases of cerebral palsy are usually diagnosed shortly after birth, but more mild cases may not be diagnosed until months or years later. The most accurate method of diagnosis is a general movements assessment, which measures spontaneous movements like the tonic neck reflex, grasp reflex and rooting reflexes. MRI or CT scans may be required to diagnose the underlying damage. Usually, cerebral palsy is diagnosed by the age of 2, but milder forms may not be diagnosed until the age of 5 or even older. Learn more about diagnosing cerebral palsy.

Treatments and Therapies: The goal of cerebral palsy treatment is to maximize the child's long-term independence and capacity for social engagement. Depending on the number, type and severity of symptoms, treatment may include physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and water therapy. Medications may be prescribed to treat pain and reduce spasms and seizures. Medical devices such as walkers, braces and communication aids may also be used. Learn more about treatments and therapies for cerebral palsy.

Malpractice and Cerebral Palsy: Some cases of cerebral palsy are not preventable, but many occur due to preventable factors. Medical professionals need to follow accepted standards of care, monitor the fetus during pregnancy, labor and delivery to identify any warning signs or risks of damage to the brain, and appropriately intervene to minimize the risk of damage. Sadly, many cases of cerebral palsy are caused by medical professionals who do not meet that standard of care. Learn more about medical malpractice and cerebral palsy.

Legal Help for Cerebral Palsy: The lifetime cost of a cerebral palsy diagnosis, between the cost of treatment, therapy, care and lost future income, can easily be in the millions of dollars. An attorney can pursue financial compensation from the responsible medical providers to pay for the cost of a lifetime of care. An attorney can also help with legal vehicles such as a special needs trust to help provide for the child's needs. Learn more about legal help for cerebral palsy, or schedule a free legal consultation with an attorney in your state.