Understanding Cerebral Palsy

More than 500,000 Americans have some degree of cerebral palsy. Three thousand people are born with the condition each year, and approximately 500 others acquire cerebral palsy in early childhood.

Cerebral palsy ("cerebral" refers to the brain and "palsy" means to deprive of action or energy) is not a disease, but a condition caused by damage to parts of the brain that control muscle coordination, balance and purposeful movement. Most commonly, injury occurs to the developing brain of a fetus or newborn. Preventive measures are increasingly possible, and include ensuring the well-being of mothers prior to conception, adequate prenatal care and the protection of infants from accidents and injuries.

Individuals with cerebral palsy may be affected differently, depending on the specific areas of the brain that have been damaged. Muscle tightness or spasm, involuntary movement, and disturbance in gait and mobility are common effects. Individuals also may experience abnormal sensations and perceptions; sight, hearing or speech impairment; seizures. Related problems may include difficulties in feeding, bladder and bowel control, difficulty breathing due to posture, skin disorders from pressure sores, and learning disabilities.

Infants in the high-risk category for cerebral palsy can be tense and irritable, experience difficulty eating and lag in developing muscle control. Early identification - often possible through routine physical examinations - is important for children with cerebral palsy. With support and care from informed parents and the help of a variety of professionals (physicians, physical and occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, nurses, social workers, teachers and others) children with cerebral palsy can actively participate in their schools and communities.


  • Cerebral palsy is not communicable or progressive. With the exception of a very rare type, cerebral palsy is not inherited.
  • Although cerebral palsy cannot be "cured," professional medical supervision, appropriate therapy and adequate training can control many of its effects. Since each person with cerebral palsy is different, support programs must be tailored to the individual.


Prenatal Events:

  • Lack of necessary immunizations before pregnancy
  • Rh or A-B-O blood type incompatibility between mother and child
  • Poor health, poor diet, smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol and viral infections, e.g. German measles
  • Limited prenatal care
  • Exposure to toxins, e.g. lead
  • Malformations of the brain, Complications due to multiple births

Insufficient oxygen or blood flow to the fetal or newborn brain, which can be caused by:

  • Premature birth
  • Premature separation of the placenta
  • Awkward position of infant at birth, e.g. breech presentation
  • Prolonged or instantaneous labor
  • Interference with the umbilical cord
  • Untreated jaundice in newborn
  • Microorganisms that attack newborn's central nervous system

Head injuries causing brain damage in infants and young children, commonly the result of:

  • Trauma (including falls)
  • Motor vehicle or swimming accidents
  • Child abuse
  • Access to household chemicals
  • Lead poisoning
  • Viral infection
  • It is not always possible to determine the cause of cerebral palsy. In more than 30 percent of children, no high risk factors associated with the disorder can be identified.


Preventive measures for women include:

  • Monitoring blood types and providing immunization to those with Rh-negative factor immediately after each pregnancy
  • Avoiding unnecessary exposure to x-rays, drugs and medications
  • Controlling diabetes, anemia, blood pressure, heart conditions and other physical problems
  • Maintaining proper nutrition

Preventive measures for children include:

  • Providing light therapy to babies with jaundice
  • Protecting infants and toddlers from injuries and accidents, e.g. using car seats and bicycle helmets.


Managing cerebral palsy usually involves all aspects of physical, mental, social and emotional growth and development. The wide variety of programs and services that contribute to management of the condition include special education, counseling and guidance, vocational training and placement, recreation and leisure activities, independent living arrangements, transportation and other support services that may lead to participation in an unrestricted environment.

Specifically, treatment and management of cerebral palsy may include:

  • Early detection and treatment
  • Ongoing physician supervision
  • Therapeutic and rehabilitation services
  • Speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy
  • Orthopedic and neurological surgery
  • Prescription of medicine
  • Application of new and assistive technologies
  • Use of adapted and special equipment
  • Family support services

Related Content: Living with Cerebral Palsy

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