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What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy describes a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Cerebral palsy is caused by brain injury or atypical brain development that happens around the time of birth or early in life.

Types of Cerebral Palsy

There are three common types of cerebral palsy, depending on what part of the brain is affected:

In some infants, symptoms are evident soon after birth. In others, diagnosis comes in later infancy or toddlerhood. Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition, meaning the injury to the brain doesn’t change, however, the effects of cerebral palsy often progress as people get older.

Spastic Cerebral Palsy
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Spastic cerebral palsy is often associated with injury to or developmental differences in the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. People who have spastic cerebral palsy experience unusually tight and stiff muscles, which can affect movement and growth. Spastic cerebral palsy accounts for about 80 percent of all cases of cerebral palsy.

Spastic cerebral palsy affects different areas of the body:

  • Diplegia affects the legs more than the arms. This type of cerebral palsy is most common in premature babies.
  • Hemiplegia affects one side of the body. This type of cerebral palsy is most common in babies who’ve experienced strokes or traumatic brain injuries.
  • Quadriplegia affects the entire body—the legs and the arms. This type of cerebral palsy is most common in babies who experience a lack of oxygen.
Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy
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Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is often associated with damage to the parts of the brain called the basal ganglia and the cerebellum. People who have dyskinetic cerebral palsy experience involuntary movements, such as tremors, or have difficulty balancing and making coordinated movements. They might also experience other types of complex movement disorders.

Mixed Presentation
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Mixed cerebral palsy describes people who experience features of spastic and dyskinetic cerebral palsy. This type of cerebral palsy is associated with damage to multiple areas of the brain.

What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Developing fetuses and infants up to age 1 can develop cerebral palsy if they experience brain injury or disruptions in brain development caused by:

  • Bleeding in the brain before, during or after birth.
  • Infections of the brain, including meningitis or encephalitis.
  • Shock—a state in which organs and tissues don’t receive adequate blood flow.
  • Traumatic brain injuries.
  • Seizures at birth or in the first month following birth.
  • Certain genetic conditions.

In some cases, health care providers are unable to determine the precise cause of a child’s cerebral palsy.

Older children can develop symptoms similar to those of cerebral palsy if they sustain traumatic brain injuries, experience a lack of oxygen, or contract an infection such as meningitis. Children whose injuries occur when they are older receive a diagnosis of brain injury rather than cerebral palsy.

Risk Factors

Cerebral palsy occurs in 1.5 to more than 4 of every 1,000 infants born alive. Many factors—such as premature birth and serious illnesses—increase an infant’s risk of having cerebral palsy. In some cases, infants who are born at typical weights and experience no known brain injuries can still have cerebral palsy.