Cerebral Palsy: Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Diverse causes and outcomes

Cerebral palsy is a physical or cognitive disability that’s caused by brain damage at birth. Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition that ranges from mild to severe. Some children born with cerebral palsy can maintain independence, and some will need help with self-care.

In this article, you can find the facts about the prevalence of cerebral palsy, risk factors, survival, and more. 

Parent helps child with mild cerebral palsy climb steps

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Cerebral Palsy Overview

Cerebral palsy occurs when the brain is permanently damaged while a child is still in utero (the mother is pregnant), during delivery, or shortly after birth.

When brain damage at this age causes any of the following, it is diagnosed as cerebral palsy:

  • Weakness of one limb or one side of the body 
  • Diminished ability to move the legs
  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing 
  • Vision impairment 
  • Learning challenges
  • Balance problems, impaired coordination, or walking difficulties 

Over time, the physical effects can lead to muscle atrophy (thinning of the muscles) and spasticity (muscle stiffness). 

How Common Is Cerebral Palsy? 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the worldwide incidence of cerebral palsy as between 1 to 4 per 1,000 live births, and approximately 1 in 345 children in the United States is diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

According to the CDC, there has been a slight decline in the incidence of cerebral palsy since 1980 in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

Cerebral Palsy by Ethnicity

The CDC states that the incidence of cerebral palsy in the U.S. is approximately equal among White children and Hispanic children and that it is significantly more common among Black children.

For people who have cerebral palsy, survival and cause of death differ by race and ethnicity.

The age at death of people who have cerebral palsy is highest among White people, followed by Asian people, Hispanic people, and Black people, then people who are Native American.

Black adults who have cerebral palsy are more likely than non-Hispanic White adults to die from heart disease and cerebrovascular diseases.

Cerebral Palsy by Age and Gender 

There is a risk of death due to the severe brain injuries that cause cerebral palsy or from complications associated with cerebral palsy. For this reason, the prevalence decreases with age as some people who have severe cerebral palsy do not survive. 

Cerebral palsy is present from birth, and it affects all sexes equally. A child or adult could not develop cerebral palsy if they weren't born with it.

Children and adults who experience severe head trauma or brain damage may develop similar disabilities and may need the same types of support and assistance as people who have cerebral palsy.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy and Risk Factors

Most of the time, children who are born with cerebral palsy do not have a specific identifiable risk factor. But there are factors that can increase the likelihood of a child having cerebral palsy. 

Risk factors include:

  • The mother having a severe infection or illness during pregnancy 
  • A family history of cerebral palsy 
  • Developmental malformation of the baby’s brain, heart, kidneys, or lungs 
  • Extensive bleeding, oxygen deprivation, or other complications during labor and delivery 
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • A severe newborn infection 

What Are the Mortality Rates for Cerebral Palsy? 

Cerebral palsy is associated with a decreased life expectancy, but there is a substantial variation in the data. Causes of death include complications of cerebral palsy, as well as comorbidities (other conditions that can affect a person who has cerebral palsy).

Common comorbidities with cerebral palsy include:

  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Digestive issues
  • Dementia

These conditions increase the risk of illness and early death for people who have cerebral palsy.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., both for adults who have cerebral palsy and for adults who do not have cerebral palsy.

For people who have cerebral palsy, the likelihood of death from a preventable respiratory cause, such as pneumonia (lung inflammation often caused by infection) or another respiratory infection, is higher than it is for people who do not have cerebral palsy.

Screening and Early Detection 

Early detection of cerebral palsy is important because medical or surgical interventions can improve outcomes. 

There is no single screening test or diagnostic test that confirms a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. A standard newborn physical examination will usually detect signs of cerebral palsy.

Signs include:

  • Diminished muscle tone or muscle spasticity
  • Decreased voluntary control of one or more limbs
  • Not looking at people or objects as expected for age
  • Not responding to sounds as expected for age
  • Less alert than expected for age
  • Weak swallowing, difficulty eating
  • Weak crying or excessive crying
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Delay in sitting up, crawling, or walking

The definitive diagnosis is made based on the child’s physical examination, usually along with brain imaging tests. 

Medical Checkups

Babies are scheduled to have several medical checkups within the first few months of life, and these checkups can pick up signs of cerebral palsy.

Summary 

Cerebral palsy is a neurological impairment that occurs due to brain damage before or shortly after birth. It can cause lifelong physical and learning disabilities, ranging from mild to severe. Supportive care with physical interventions and learning assistance can help optimize learning and self-care for children and adults with cerebral palsy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can cerebral palsy get better?

    The brain damage that causes cerebral palsy generally does not get better. However, it is not possible to predict the precise extent of the effects. Some people who have cerebral palsy have very mild physical handicaps, with otherwise unaffected physical abilities and strong cognitive skills.

    Most people who have cerebral palsy can benefit from physical therapy, occupational therapy, and learning interventions.

  • Is cerebral palsy the same as Down syndrome?

    These conditions are not the same, although many people may get them confused with each other. Down syndrome is a specific genetic condition that occurs when a child inherits an extra copy of chromosome 21 and is not caused by brain damage. Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage.

  • Is cerebral palsy like autism?

    These conditions are not the same, although some people who have cerebral palsy may also have autism. Autism is characterized by a deficit in interacting with others, and the cause is unknown. Cerebral palsy is a deficit in physical and/or cognitive development, and it is caused by brain damage.

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5 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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