Cerebral palsy happens when there’s damage to brain areas that control muscle movement, or when those areas don’t develop as they should. It’s a main cause of childhood disability. The symptoms and effects vary widely, and so do the treatments. But medical and technological advances mean that people with this condition are living longer, fuller lives.
Cerebral palsy (CP) is a neurological condition that can present as issues with muscle tone, posture and/or a movement disorder. It’s the result of damage to your brain during fetal development or another developmental disability that affects the way your brain develops. The signs and symptoms of CP appear early in childhood and can vary widely from person to person.
The main effect of CP is that it disrupts control of muscle movement (conditions that do this are known as movement disorders). It may also affect nearby brain areas and the abilities they control, but that isn’t always the case. Having CP doesn’t automatically cause someone to have an intellectual disability.
There are three main types of CP:
Experts also organize subtypes of CP by patterns based on what part of your body they mainly affect. Those patterns are:
CP is uncommon overall. Between 5,500 and 13,100 children in the United States are born with it each year. Research indicates that as of 2019, more than 1 million adults in the U.S. are living with cerebral palsy, and experts also expect that number will keep growing.
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Cerebral palsy can have several different signs and symptoms. Some affect movement, while others affect certain body parts, appearance and behavior.
Some examples of nonmovement signs and symptoms include:
Some examples of movement symptoms related to cerebral palsy include:
Cerebral palsy happens because of damage to parts of your brain that control movement. The damage might not affect just this section, which can cause other problems. And these kinds of damage can often have multiple causes or factors contributing to them.
This damage can happen at different times, including before, during and after birth. Damage before birth makes up about 80% of the causes. After birth, it makes up about 10% of causes.
Examples of the causes include:
Babies can develop CP after birth due to other events. These are often injury-related, but there are other possible causes, too, including:
There are certain circumstances or factors that can contribute to cerebral palsy or make it more likely to happen. They include:
Cerebral palsy often happens simultaneously with other conditions that affect brain function. These other conditions may happen because of the same damage that caused CP.
Examples of conditions that often happen alongside or because of CP include:
A healthcare provider can diagnose cerebral palsy using a combination of methods and tools. The earliest signs of CP are usually things most people wouldn’t know to look for. But a trained healthcare provider can often catch these during your baby’s regular checkups with their pediatrician.
A provider may suspect CP before your baby reaches 12 months old, but will often hold off on making the official diagnosis until your baby is between 18 and 24 months old. A provider can diagnose CP using a physical and neurological exam, specialized assessment checklists, and imaging scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your baby has other symptoms, they may need other tests, too. Your baby’s provider can tell you what tests they recommend and why these are necessary.
Cerebral palsy isn’t curable, but the symptoms and effects are treatable. The possible treatments depend on several factors, including how severe it is, the symptoms and how they affect you. Treating CP also usually involves a team approach, with professionals from multiple specialties contributing.
Treatments can include any of the following:
CP happens for reasons that are unpredictable and that aren’t generally preventable. Because of that, it’s impossible to prevent it.
While it isn’t preventable, there are ways to reduce the risks of your baby developing CP from certain causes.
Cerebral palsy can begin before, during or just after birth. It’s a permanent, lifelong condition.
The outlook for cerebral palsy can vary widely depending on its severity. When CP is more severe, the outlook is less positive and tends to have a reduced life expectancy. The more severe it is, the greater the reduction.
At the same time, advances in medical care, supportive treatments and technological innovations are changing the landscape for people with CP. That means people with CP, even moderate or severe cases, are living longer. Because of these shifts in life expectancy and the many variables that can contribute to it, your healthcare provider ( and/or your child’s provider) is the best person to tell you about life expectancy and what can affect that estimate.
If you have CP, many factors can affect how you care for yourself. If you have minor or moderate CP, you’re more likely to be able to care for yourself to some extent. If you have moderate to severe CP, you may have limited ability to care for yourself, and it’s more likely that you’ll need lifelong support or care.
CP is a very variable condition, and it looks different from one person to the next. Because of that, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what you can do to care for yourself (or a child you care for). Their guidance will be the most relevant to your particular circumstances.
If your child has CP, some questions you might want to ask include:
If you’re an adult with CP, you may want to ask your provider the following:
No, cerebral palsy doesn’t always affect intelligence. In fact, about half of all people with CP have no disruptions in their cognitive abilities. That means it doesn’t affect their intelligence at all. Many people with CP have disruptions in how they communicate, but that isn’t the same as an intellectual disability.
Cerebral palsy may have contributing genetic factors, but that isn’t always the case. Some people with no genetic factors or family history of CP may still develop it from an injury or other event in early infancy.
Some people with CP may be able to walk without help. Others may need to use support items like crutches, a walker or a cane. Others may use assistive devices like a wheelchair. It varies widely. Some people with CP may be able to walk at times, but fatigue or other temporary symptoms might mean they need to switch to using crutches or a wheelchair.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP), you may wonder if you’re to blame. CP happens unpredictably, and it’s usually because of a combination of factors. While CP is a serious condition and frequently causes disabilities, advances in modern medicine mean there are new treatments that can help with the symptoms and effects. And advances in assistive technology can help people with CP live longer, fuller lives.
If your child has CP, your child’s pediatrician can help you understand the condition and offer guidance and support. They can also help you find resources that can contribute to your child’s health and well-being. And if you’re an adult with CP, don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare provider about any challenges you’re experiencing. They may know of new treatments, technologies or services that might help you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/16/2023.
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