This page is an introductory guide to cerebral palsy.
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Cerebral palsy is a name for a group of conditions that are caused by damage to the brain, usually affecting movement. It is experienced differently by every person.
On this page, you’ll find some answers to common questions about cerebral palsy, and links to further information and support.
On this page:
- What is cerebral palsy?
- Types of cerebral palsy
- Cerebral palsy symptoms
- Causes of cerebral palsy
- How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
- How is cerebral palsy treated?
- Is cerebral palsy a learning disability?
- Getting support
What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for a group of conditions or disorders.
“Cerebral” means “of the brain”, while “palsy” means “paralysis”.
People with cerebral palsy often have trouble with movement, balance and posture. This could mean difficulty walking, using their arms or speaking.
This is because their brains struggle to send messages to their muscles.
The exact muscles and movements that are affected vary from person to person.
Most people with cerebral palsy are born with it. This is known as “congenital cerebral palsy”. Some people develop it in early childhood. This is known as “acquired cerebral palsy”.
Types of cerebral palsy
These are the most common types of cerebral palsy.
Spastic cerebral palsy
People with spastic cerebral palsy have stiff, tight muscles.
This can mean that their movements are jerky. It can also cause painful muscle spasms.
Different terms for cerebral palsy
You might hear some of these terms to describe cerebral palsy based on which limbs are affected.
- Monoplegic cerebral palsy: one limb is affected.
- Diplegic cerebral palsy: two limbs (both legs) are affected.
- Hemiplegic cerebral palsy: one side of the body (one arm and one leg) is affected.
- Triplegic cerebral palsy: three limbs are affected.
- Quadriplegic cerebral palsy: four limbs are affected.
Ataxic cerebral palsy
Ataxic cerebral palsy affects a person’s sense of balance and spatial awareness.
People with this type of cerebral palsy often struggle with their coordination.
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy
This type of cerebral palsy causes involuntary contractions in the muscles. People with this type of cerebral palsy make movements (and sometimes sounds) that they can’t control.
Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is sometimes called “athetoid cerebral palsy”.
Mixed cerebral palsy
Many people have a mixture of spastic, ataxic and dyskinetic cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy symptoms
There are a wide range of symptoms of cerebral palsy, which can show up differently in every person who has it. No two people with cerebral palsy are the same.
Most people with cerebral palsy have some problems with movement and coordination.
Their muscles might be either too stiff or too weak, and they may have trouble controlling their movements.
People with cerebral palsy may also have:
- Difficulties with eating and swallowing.
- Scoliosis (a curved spine).
- Difficulty with speech.
- Trouble with falling or staying asleep.
- Hearing loss.
- Visual impairment.
- Learning disabilities.
Signs of cerebral palsy in babies
Sometimes cerebral palsy is diagnosed at birth, but sometimes it isn’t diagnosed until later. This is because a child’s symptoms might not be visible until they are a little older.
These are some early signs of cerebral palsy:
- Being late to reach milestones like sitting or walking.
- Stiff or floppy muscle tone.
- Using one side of the body more than the other.
- Walking on tip-toes.
- Having little control of movements or being clumsy.
There are lots of different potential signs of cerebral palsy. Some people might be only mildly affected, while others will need more support.
If you’re concerned about your child, it’s best to speak to your GP or health visitor.
Causes of cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain that happens before, during or right after birth.
What causes cerebral palsy during pregnancy?
Babies whose brain development is affected in the womb may be born with cerebral palsy.
Some possible causes include:
- An infection caught by the mother during pregnancy.
- Bleeding in the baby’s brain.
- Gene mutations.
The exact reason why a baby developed cerebral palsy in the womb is often not known.
What causes cerebral palsy during or after birth?
Cerebral palsy is sometimes caused as the result of a difficult birth.
This usually happens when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen. This could be a result of problems with the umbilical cord or placenta, for example.
Cerebral palsy can also be acquired after birth. This could be as a result of a traumatic brain injury, meningitis or near-miss drowning causing brain damage in the child’s early stages of development.
Often the exact cause of cerebral palsy is not known.
Is cerebral palsy genetic?
In most cases, cerebral palsy is caused by developmental problems or damage to the brain.
Research has shown that in some cases, there might be underlying genetic factors that make people more likely to develop cerebral palsy.
Research is still being carried out to determine if there is a genetic factor to cerebral palsy.
Does cerebral palsy get worse?
Cerebral palsy is not progressive.
This means that the original problem with the brain does not get worse through a person’s life.
But people with cerebral palsy might experience different symptoms over time. This is because of the strain placed on their bodies.
For example, if you have muscle stiffness, this might put extra pressure on your joints, causing joint pain as you get older.
How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
When a baby has a health problem that puts them at higher risk of cerebral palsy, they are monitored by doctors for signs of the condition.
Doctors diagnose cerebral palsy by looking for developmental delays and other symptoms of cerebral palsy. They might also order some tests, like blood tests or MRI scans.
If you have any concerns about your child, the best place to start is speaking to your health visitor or GP.
When is cerebral palsy diagnosed?
Cerebral palsy is often diagnosed soon after birth.
Sometimes it takes a bit longer, especially when the symptoms are milder. In these cases, doctors might not diagnose a child until they are a few years old.
How is cerebral palsy treated?
There’s no cure for cerebral palsy, but there are lots of ways to support people with the condition so that they can live more comfortably and independently.
Cerebral palsy treatment can include:
- Speech therapy.
- Occupational therapy.
- Pain relief.
- Muscle relaxants.
- Mobility aids.
- Assistive technology.
Every person with cerebral palsy is different, and so treatment looks different for everyone. Speak to your doctor about what’s best for you or your child.
Is cerebral palsy a learning disability?
No. Cerebral palsy is not a learning disability in itself.
However, some people with cerebral palsy also have learning disabilities.
If you’d like support yourself, or need help to support a child with cerebral palsy, you can contact Sense’s Information and advice service.
If you think your child might have cerebral palsy, speak to your GP, a health visitor (for children under five), or any other healthcare professional your child sees. Alternatively, you could speak to special educational needs (SENCO) staff at your child’s school.
Getting diagnosed can help your child get any extra support they might need.
You can also find out about the support system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
You can also get information and advice from the disability charity Scope, which was founded with the aim of expanding services for people with cerebral palsy.
To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, including help with energy, food, travel and leisure costs, please visit our Benefits and money section.
Ask us how we can support you
If you or a loved one has cerebral palsy, and would like some support, get in touch with our friendly team.
This content was last reviewed in June 2023. We’ll review it again in 2024.