Diana Apetauerova, MD, is board-certified in neurology with a subspecialty in movement disorders. She is an associate clinical professor of neurology at Tufts School of Medicine.
Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common motor disability in childhood, affecting your brain (cerebral) and how you use your muscles (palsy).
Children with cerebral palsy have problems with muscle tone, which affects their:
Unlike other medical conditions that can affect movement, in CP the problem isn't in your muscles or nerves—it comes from damage to the brain itself, often caused by a pathology known as periventricular leukomalacia.
Many people with CP also have related conditions such as:
CP affects about one in 323 children in the United States.
Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury during pregnancy, delivery, or early in a baby’s life. Potential causes of brain damage include:
Some cases of cerebral palsy are genetic, but the role of genetics isn’t clear. Research has uncovered some genetic patterns related to the condition, including mistakenly repeated portions of genes, but they haven’t found a single gene that appears to be responsible for the disease’s development.
Cerebral palsy is not a progressive condition, meaning it doesn’t get worse over time. However, it is a life-long condition that can’t be cured. Long-term symptoms can lead to complications, but many of these can be avoided with proper care and planning.
Congenital disorders are present when a baby is born. More than 4,000 congenital conditions exist. Many of them impact development, function, or physical appearance, and they’re estimated to affect between 3 and 4% of babies born in the United States. Cerebral palsy is often congenital, such as when it’s caused by genetics, in utero infection, or folic acid deficiency in the mother.
A cranial ultrasound is a type of imaging scan of the head. In an ultrasound, sound waves are used to create a picture of what’s going on inside your body. One use of cranial ultrasounds is to identify brain damage in babies that may lead to cerebral palsy.
An electroencephalogram (EFG) is a noninvasive test that uses electrodes to record the electrical activity in your brain. It’s most often used to look for seizures, such as in epilepsy, but it’s also used to diagnose other conditions as well. Because some children with cerebral palsy have seizures, an EEG may be used to check for seizures that are not obvious.
A gene mutation is a permanent change to the DNA sequence that makes up one of your genes in a way that’s different from most other people’s genes. In cerebral palsy, experts used to think only a small percentage of cases were genetic, but more recent research has indicated genetic mutation may be more common than originally thought.
Van Naarden Braun K, Doernberg N, Schieve L, Christensen D, Goodman A, Yeargin-Allsopp M. Birth prevalence of cerebral palsy: a population-based study. Pediatrics. 2016;137(1):1–9. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-2872
Zaghloul N, Ahmed M. Pathophysiology of periventricular leukomalacia: What we learned from animal models. Neural Regen Res. 2017;12(11):1795–1796. doi:10.4103/1673-5374.219034
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Data & statistics for cerebral palsy. Updated April 30, 2019.
MedlinePlus. What is a gene mutation and how do mutations occur? Updated September 17, 2020.
Skovgaard AL, Zachariassen G. Cranial ultrasound findings in preterm infants predict the development of cerebral palsy. Dan Med J. 2017;64(2):A5330.
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