Causes and Risk Factors of Cerebral Palsy

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Cerebral palsy (CP) is linked to certain known causes and risk factors. It affects about 1 out of 345 children. CP is congenital (present at birth or shortly after birth) damage or developmental problems of the brain leading to a deficit of motor skills. There may be accompanying cognitive issues.

cerebral palsy causes and risk factors
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Common Causes 

It is important to note that most of the recognized causes of cerebral palsy can occur without the subsequent development of this condition. It is not completely clear why some children who experience these events develop cerebral palsy and some do not. 


While there are a number of known causes of cerebral palsy, if you or your child has been diagnosed your medical team may not be able to identify a cause.

In many cases, there is no identified cause of cerebral palsy.

The majority of children who are diagnosed with this condition were not known to be exposed to the recognized causes or risk factors, have normal brain imaging tests and do not have genetic abnormalities associated with cerebral palsy. 

Congenital Causes

Congenital abnormalities of the central nervous system are found to be more common in patients with cerebral palsy. Some areas of the brain may be larger or smaller than average or of an unusual contour. Larger than usual spaces filled with fluid may be present in some instances.

Imaging studies may reveal brain structure that is not necessarily altered in size or shape, such as in focal cortical dysplasia, a condition where the neurons in an area of the brain do not migrate to their proper location. The cause of the congenital abnormalities is not usually identified. 


When a developing unborn baby or a newborn baby suffers from a lack of oxygen, even for a brief period of time, this can cause permanent damage to the growing baby’s brain. Hypoxia can occur due to a variety of situations such as maternal trauma, severe maternal illness, and crises during labor and delivery or from unknown causes. 

It was previously believed that lack of oxygen around the time of delivery was a major contributor to the development of CP, but it is now thought that this only causes a relatively small number of cases.

Maternal Infection 

Some maternal infections can impact the developing baby’s brain, causing cerebral abnormalities that manifest as cerebral palsy, particularly if they advance to cause severe systemic infections such as sepsis. 

Birth Trauma 

Material blood loss or oxygen deprivation experienced as a result of trauma can cause the developing baby to suffer from hypoxia. The physical effects of traumatic impact may also harm the baby in ways that lead to or contribute to cerebral palsy.

Maternal trauma can affect the baby’s brain in a number of ways, potentially leading to cerebral palsy.

Cerebrovascular Disease

A developing baby or a newborn baby can have a stroke, resulting in permanent motor or cognitive deficits characteristic of cerebral palsy. The cause of the stroke may be unknown, or it may be related to maternal illness or blood clotting conditions.

Low Birth Weight

Low birth weight has been associated with cerebral palsy. Specifically, babies who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth are at a higher risk of cerebral palsy than babies who weigh more.

Preterm Birth

Babies who are born before the 37th week of pregnancy, especially if they are born before the 32nd week of pregnancy, have a greater chance of having CP.

Birth Complications

Emergency situations during labor and delivery can cause severe physical stress for the baby and may also produce several of the causes of cerebral palsy, such as cerebrovascular events and hypoxia.

Maternal Illness 

The vast majority of pregnant women who experience illness during pregnancy have healthy children. Yet illnesses such as severe blood pressure alterations, stroke, liver disease, kidney disease, or heart disease can cause disruption in the delivery of blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the developing baby.

Some illnesses can cause material such as bilirubin, ammonia or other toxins to deposit or build up in the growing baby’s body, causing damage to the baby’s growing brain.

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The role of genetics in cerebral palsy is not completely clear. Generally, it has been thought that heredity may only be responsible for a small percentage of cases. However, recent research suggests that genetic abnormalities may be a source of more cases of cerebral palsy than previously thought.

Some genetic abnormalities are hereditary, while some are de novo—meaning that they are new genetic abnormalities arising in either the child who has cerebral palsy or in one of the child’s parents without having been present in the family before.

Some genetic patterns associated with cerebral palsy, particularly with de novo genetic alterations, involve genomic copy number variations. These are sections of genes that are irregularly and mistakenly repeated on a chromosome, causing the development of the disease.

So far, no single gene has been identified as the gene responsible for cerebral palsy, and researchers have found several genetic abnormalities that could each independently or collectively contribute to the condition.

Lifestyle Risk factors

There are a few lifestyle risk factors associated with cerebral palsy, and these are generally risk factors that relate to the mother’s pregnancy or to the time of labor and delivery. 

Maternal Drug Use

Some drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine can affect the blood flow and heart function of both a mother and her developing baby in ways that increase the risk of cerebrovascular disease in the unborn infant or during labor and delivery. 

Drug use during any stage of pregnancy may contribute to cerebral palsy.

Drug use also increases the likelihood of a medical crisis during labor and delivery.


Some strong medications are not approved for use during pregnancy, as they may increase the risk of a variety of negative consequences for the baby, including cerebral palsy

Substances in the environment, such as cat litter, mercury, lead, contaminants, and industrial chemicals, can be ingested or inhaled by a pregnant woman and may reach her developing baby’s body, causing congenital problems such as cerebral palsy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is cerebral palsy?

    Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders involving the brain that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It is an irreversible, non-progressive disorder (meaning that it is permanent but doesn’t get worse as a person ages). Even so, it is a major cause of disability that can impact a person’s long-term health and well-being.

  • What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

    Symptoms can vary by the type of cerebral palsy a person has, including:

    • Spastic cerebral palsy: Jerky movements, muscle tightness, and joint stiffness
    • Ataxic cerebral palsy: Clumsiness with imprecise movements and instability
    • Athetoid (dyskinetic) cerebral palsy: Abnormal, involuntary movements with twisting
    • Hypotonic cerebral palsy: Muscle “floppiness” that make movements difficult and exhausting
  • What causes cerebral palsy?

    Cerebral palsy is caused by disturbance or injury to the brain during fetal development or birth. It is more common in children who are preterm or have a low birth weight. Maternal infection, multiple births (including twins), birth complications, and kernicterus (a type of brain damage caused by neonatal jaundice) are also risk factors.

  • How common is cerebral palsy?

    Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of motor disability in children, affecting one of every 345 kids to varying degrees. In the United States, an estimated 764,000 people are currently living with cerebral palsy.

  • How is cerebral palsy diagnosed?

    Cerebral palsy is diagnosed based on a child’s development over time. It is often suspected when a baby cannot hold their head when lifted, feels stiff or floppy, or fails to roll over or move with coordination for the developmental age. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and standardized assessment tools, like the Hammersmith Infant Neurological Exam (HINE), can help support the diagnosis.

  • Can a child outgrow cerebral palsy?

    There is some evidence that children with mild cerebral palsy may “outgrow” their condition. But, because the diagnosis is somewhat subjective and there is no single test that can definitively diagnose the disease, some scientists have suggested misdiagnosis might explain this phenomenon—given that many other disorders can cause palsy-like symptoms in children.

  • How long can a person with cerebral palsy live?

    Some people with mild cerebral palsy can live well into their 70s, while others with severe symptoms (such as those who require tube feeding or cannot support their head or bodies) may only live to their late teens. Some studies suggest that people with mild impairment have a median life expectancy of around 58 years.

  • What are major causes of death in people with cerebral palsy?

    Respiratory problems are the main cause of premature death. Many people with cerebral palsy have chronic swallowing problems (dysphagia) that increase the risk of aspirational pneumonia (caused when food or water accidentally enters the lung). Some studies have reported that around half of people with cerebral palsy die of pneumonia.

20 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.