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Cerebral Palsy

The term cerebral palsy refers to any one of a number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination but don’t worsen over time. The United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) Foundation estimates that nearly 800,000 children and adults in the United States are living with one or more of the symptoms of cerebral palsy. According to the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 10,000 babies born in the United States will develop cerebral palsy.


Children with cerebral palsy exhibit a wide variety of symptoms, including:

  • lack of muscle coordination when performing voluntary movements (ataxia);
  • stiff or tight muscles and exaggerated reflexes (spasticity);
  • walking with one foot or leg dragging;
  • walking on the toes, a crouched gait, or a “scissored” gait;
  • variations in muscle tone, either too stiff or too floppy;
  • excessive drooling or difficulties swallowing or speaking;
  • shaking (tremor) or random involuntary movements; and
  • difficulty with precise motions, such as writing or buttoning a shirt.

The symptoms of cerebral palsy differ in type and severity from one person to the next, and may even change in an individual over time. Some people with cerebral palsy also have other medical disorders, including mental retardation, seizures, impaired vision or hearing, and abnormal physical sensations or perceptions.


The majority of children with cerebral palsy are born with it, although it may not be detected until months or years later. There are multiple reasons why cerebral palsy happens – as the result of genetic abnormalities, maternal infections or fevers, or fetal injury, for example. But in all cases the disorder is the result of four types of brain damage that cause its characteristic symptoms:

  • Damage to the white matter of the brain
  • Abnormal development of the brain
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain

A small number of children have acquired cerebral palsy, which means the disorder begins after birth. In these cases, doctors can often pinpoint a specific reason for the problem, such as brain damage in the first few months or years of life, brain infections such as bacterial meningitis or viral encephalitis, or head injury from a motor vehicle accident, a fall, or child abuse.


Cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but treatment will often improve a child's capabilities. Many children go on to enjoy near-normal adult lives if their disabilities are properly managed. In general, the earlier treatment begins the better chance children have of overcoming developmental disabilities or learning new ways to accomplish the tasks that challenge them. Treatment may include physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, drugs to control seizures, relax muscle spasms, and alleviate pain; surgery to correct anatomical abnormalities or release tight muscles; braces and other orthotic devices; wheelchairs and rolling walkers; and communication aids such as computers with attached voice synthesizers.



National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke