First Time User? Enroll now.
As the COVID-19 situation has evolved, our visitor policy is evolving as well. Get full details.
For the most current information, please visit our Coronavirus resource pages.
Home > Health Library > Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a problem that makes it hard for a child to control movement. It's caused by damage to the brain. Usually this damage happens before birth. The brain injury that causes CP doesn't get worse over time, but symptoms may start, change, or become more severe as a child grows.
CP is caused by a brain injury or problem that occurs during pregnancy or birth or within the first 2 to 3 years of life. It can happen if the baby doesn't get enough blood, oxygen, or other nutrients before or during birth. Other causes include premature birth and genetic problems.
CP causes problems with body movement and posture. But symptoms can vary. Some people may have just a small limp, while others may have little to no control over some body parts. In some cases, the symptoms of CP are noticed at birth. In others, symptoms aren't clear until early childhood.
The doctor will do a physical exam and ask you about your child's past health. He or she may ask about your child's growth and development and about any problems you may have noticed. The doctor may also do tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI of your child's head.
Even though cerebral palsy (CP) can't be cured, you and your child can do things to help deal with symptoms, prevent problems, and make the most of your child's abilities. Physical therapy is one of the most important treatments. Medicines, surgery, and special equipment such as a walker can also help.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
CP is caused by an injury to or abnormal development of the brain. In many cases, the exact cause isn't known. The damage or abnormality may occur during pregnancy or birth or within the first 2 to 3 years of life.
The cause of CP sometimes isn't known. But links have been found between CP and certain conditions during pregnancy, birth, and early childhood. Some of these can be prevented.
Staying healthy before and during pregnancy can help lower the risk that a brain injury will occur in a developing baby. Here are some tips for healthy habits before and during pregnancy.
Help prevent CP in your young child by lowering your child's risk for getting a brain injury.
Everyone who has CP has problems with body movement and posture. But the physical problems are worse for some people than for others. People may have:
Babies with severe CP often have problems with their posture. Their bodies may be either very floppy or very stiff. Birth defects sometimes also occur. Examples include a spine that doesn't have the normal shape, a small jawbone, or a small head. These babies may also have a weak or shrill cry.
As your child gets older, new symptoms may appear, or symptoms may change or get worse.
People with CP have a wide range of abilities. The way your child is affected depends on the type of CP they have and how severe it is.
The brain injury that causes CP doesn't get worse over time. But problems related to CP may appear, change, or increase as your child grows. These may include:
Even though CP can't be cured, treatment can help your child make the most of their abilities and physical strength.
Some children with CP may have complications, such as seizures, joint problems, or bowel or bladder problems. Other medical conditions, such as vision or hearing problems, are often associated with CP. Sometimes these conditions are known right away. In other cases, they aren't found until a child gets older.
Adults with CP are at risk for heart and lung disease. For example, severe CP causes problems with eating. If food is inhaled into the lungs, the risk of lung infection (pneumonia) increases.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if your child with CP:
Call a doctor now if:
If your child was diagnosed with CP, call your doctor if your child has:
If you have CP and you are pregnant, talk with a doctor about how CP can affect your pregnancy and delivery.
The doctor will do a physical exam and ask you about your child's past health. You may be asked about your child's growth and development. The doctor may ask about any problems you may have noticed. Parents are often the first to notice that their baby has problems with certain abilities and skills.
Your doctor may also do tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI of your child's head. Or your doctor may look at ultrasound pictures of the brain. These tests can sometimes help the doctor find the cause of CP.
If your child has a severe form of CP, a doctor may be able to find the problem within the first few weeks of your child's life. But even when a baby has CP at birth, the signs may not be noticed until the child is 1 to 3 years old.
Even though CP can't be cured, treatment can help people make the most of their abilities and physical strength and improve their quality of life. Treatment can also prevent other problems caused by CP.
Treatment varies by the person. It changes as needed. In general, treatment focuses on ways to maintain or improve a person's quality of life and overall health.
Regular visits with your child's doctors are important to monitor your child's condition.
Treatment for CP includes:
This can help your child get around as much as possible. It often continues throughout your child's life. It may help prevent the need for surgery.
They can help control some of the symptoms of CP, prevent or minimize problems caused by CP, and treat other medical conditions related to CP.
It may sometimes be used for a person with severe problems. Surgery may help reduce muscle stiffness or spasms. It may also allow more flexibility and control of the affected limbs and joints.
These include braces, casts, and splints. The type of devices used depends on a child's needs. The devices maintain or improve how well joints move, help strengthen muscles and relax overactive (spastic) muscles, and help with daily activities.
This helps your child with short- and long-term pain.
Physical therapy and special equipment may be used together. One example is constraint-induced movement therapy, also called shaping. This encourages a child to move more by presenting interesting activities or objects and giving praise and rewards when a child tries to use the less-functioning muscles.
Ongoing treatment for CP focuses on continuing and adjusting current treatments and adding new treatments as needed.
Working with others involved with your child's care, understanding your child's needs and rights, and taking care of yourself and other family members are all important parts of treatment.
Other treatments may also be needed, depending on specific needs.
You may hear about a wide range of controversial treatments for CP, such as electrical stimulation and special diets. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any type of treatment you are considering for your child. Some of these treatments can cause harm.
The needs of your teen who has CP may change as young adulthood approaches. Here are some tips.
Family members and friends can help them deal with the daily challenges of having CP.
Usually teens have learned to use their talents and strengths. But they may need extra help and encouragement to prepare for added expectations and responsibilities. Major independent living skills include preparing meals, managing money, knowing when and where to seek medical care, and using public transportation.
Teens and young adults with CP may need more guidance than other people their age in developing these relationships.
For example, you may not be able to continue caring for a severely affected child who is growing tall and heavy. Try to plan ahead for the time when your grown child with CP is not under your care.
Here are some tips to help parents and family members manage the care of a child with CP.
Being informed can help you understand how best to help your child. Local or national CP organizations can help, especially in dealing with the impact of daily emotional and lifestyle issues. Talk with your doctor or call your local hospital for suggestions.
Laws in the United States give children with special needs access to free public school services and some free treatments. These educational rights also include protection of the parents' rights to be fully informed about or disagree with educational decisions concerning their child. Contact your state and local education departments for specific information about these accommodations. Also, vocational training may benefit some teens and young adults.
Work with your child's teachers, school administrators, special learning consultants, and school boards to develop the best educational plan for your child. A cooperative team approach helps your child realize his or her potential.
The needs of a child with CP change over time. As children grow and become more aware of their physical limitations, they need to be able to talk about their feelings and how they are treated. It is sometimes easier for them to talk with someone who isn't a family member. Ask your doctor about whether emotional counseling would benefit your child. Also, include your child when making decisions about his or her health care.
Get proper rest, eat well, exercise, and learn ways to cope with the challenges of raising a child with CP. You will be better equipped to help your child when you have physical energy and emotional strength.
The entire family is affected when one member has CP. Helping family members cope with this situation is important, especially for siblings. You can help prevent other children from having unrealistic fears and concerns, feeling left out, or becoming overwhelmed.
You and your family and friends can help your child reach his or her highest potential. And build self-esteem by helping your child learn to do things by himself or herself.
Medicines can help control some of the symptoms of CP. They can also prevent or minimize problems caused by CP and treat other medical conditions related to CP.
Muscle relaxants are the most common medicines used for people who have CP. These are called antispasmodics. They can help relax tight muscles and reduce muscle spasms. Most muscle relaxants are taken by mouth. Some are injected directly into stiff or spastic muscles. These medicines include baclofen, botulinum toxin, and diazepam.
Anticonvulsants help prevent or control seizures. These medicines include lamotrigine and oxcarbazepine.
Anticholinergics help some people who have CP who have body movements that they can't control (dystonic cerebral palsy) or who drool often. These medicines include benztropine and glycopyrrolate.
Stool softeners and mild laxatives may help treat constipation. This is a common problem for people who have CP.
Surgery for people who have CP may help reduce muscle stiffness or spasms. It may also allow more flexibility and control of the affected limbs and joints.
The main surgery choices are:
Other surgeries include:
Many people who have CP benefit from using specific devices and equipment. These may include special crutches, orthotics, casts, standers, special seats, walkers, wheelchairs, and special shoes. There may be other methods used to help with specific problems. These items can help maintain or improve joint mobility. Or they can help strengthen muscles and relax overactive (spastic) muscles. They can also help with daily activities.
The type of device that is used depends on a child's needs. For example, a child may get a cast after surgery. Or a child may get a cast to restrict movement in one area to strengthen muscles and tendons in another part of the body. If both legs are affected by CP, a child can learn to move around with the help of special equipment. These may include a scooter board (a device used to self-propel while lying down), a modified stroller, or a wheelchair.
Current as of:
August 4, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Susan C. Kim MD - PediatricsJohn Pope MD - PediatricsKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineLouis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Current as of: August 4, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics & John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.