Cerebral Palsy – An Overview


Having a baby is a joyous time, but it’s also a stressful time. The first few months of parenthood have their ups and downs as you get familiar with taking care of your newborn child. However, if your child has cerebral palsy caused by an injury during birth, you may be overwhelmed with the immensity of the task ahead.

Continue reading for a brief overview of cerebral palsy, including treatment and support options for helping you deal with the physical, financial and logistical burdens of managing this condition.

What is cerebral palsy?

According to the Mayo Clinic, cerebral palsy can be defined as “…a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by an insult to the immature, developing brain, most often before birth.”  

What are some common signs of cerebral palsy?

The signs of cerebral palsy are not immediately apparent at birth – they usually become noticeable when your child isn’t developing at the rate he should be, usually during the infant and toddler years. Although signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy can vary greatly, common ones include:

  • Muscles that are either too stiff or too limp
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Delayed pushing up on arms, sitting independently, crawling and other developmental milestones
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Favoring a certain hand and never using the other one
  • Dragging a leg while crawling

Conditions of cerebral palsy vary on a case-by-case basis. Some children’s intellectual capabilities may be at or near 100%, but they may face severe physical challenges, or vice versa.

What causes cerebral palsy?

In rare cases, the exact cause of cerebral palsy cannot be identified. For the most part though, the cause of the disorder can be broken down into two categories – congenital or acquired.

Congenital Cerebral Palsy

This is the most common cause of cerebral palsy and accounts for around 80% of cases according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Congenital causes of cerebral palsy occur before birth and can be brought on by a variety of medical conditions, including infections in the mother, twins/multiple births, any infertility treatments the mother was having, low birth weight, incompatible blood types between mom and baby and more.

Acquired Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is considered “acquired” when the brain damage leading to the disorder occurs following birth. Causes of acquired cerebral palsy can include low birth weight, blood flow problems caused by clotting, unformed blood vessels, sickle cell anemia, heart defects, and/or traumatic head injuries caused by a fall or some other type of accident (i.e. the infant is dropped).

In some cases, congenital or acquired cerebral palsy can be caused by a physician’s negligence.

For example, if the doctor or nursing staff wasn’t monitoring the baby’s heart rate closely enough, brain damage can occur. Another reason could be the doctor did not supply oxygen fast enough to an asphyxiated infant, or he did not correct a prolapsed umbilical cord soon enough. If tools like a vacuum extractor or forceps are used improperly, brain damage that leads cerebral palsy can occur.

How is cerebral palsy treated?

While cerebral palsy is NOT life threatening except in the most extreme cases, it is permanent since there is no cure. Various treatment regimens though do help patients lead productive lives over the long-term. Of course, specific treatment options will vary depending on the child’s specific symptoms and their cause.

Generally speaking, standard treatment involves a mix of physical therapy, surgery and medications. Physical therapy is perhaps the most important part of treating cerebral palsy and involves training any muscles affected by the disorder. Physical therapy will likely include exercises to help build strength, endurance, balance and flexibility.

Although physical therapy is first and foremost, surgery may be required to correct any deformities, alleviate pain and/or improve mobility. Again, which type of surgery depends on the individual situation. Orthopedic surgery is the most common, but some cases will require surgery to address hearing or vision issues.

Medications for controlling pain or mitigating any complications arising from cerebral palsy are often prescribed. Examples can include muscle relaxants, seizure and anticholinergic medications.

Besides these standard options, there are also many alternative treatments like oxygen therapy, acupuncture and massage available.

Where can I go for help if my child has cerebral palsy?

If your child is exhibiting symptoms of cerebral palsy, your first step should be to speak with their pediatrician about it. Your pediatrician will likely refer you to a specialist to help identify the specific cause and type of cerebral palsy. This of course is a vital step in determining the severity of the disorder and treatment options.

Besides family and friends, your state likely offers some sort of assistance for dealing with the effects of cerebral palsy. You can also find help through United Cerebral Palsy, a national interest group and support network with affiliates across the U.S. Here you can find other families dealing with this disorder, as well as other support resources such as transportation assistance.

If you think your child’s cerebral palsy was caused by a doctor’s (malpractice) or another party’s negligence (i.e. car accident, fall, etc.), you should reach out to an attorney in your state to discuss your case.

Check out our birth injury page and our cerebral palsy lawsuit page for more information on proving malpractice or negligence, and search our directory to find an attorney in your area who can evaluate your case and determine the right way forward.