Cerebral Palsy

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that cause problems with moving and using your muscles.

What is the cause?

CP is caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls muscles. Most children who have CP are born with it. A small number of children get CP after a brain injury or infection. The brain loses some of its ability to control movement and posture. The damage is not repairable, and can cause permanent disability. Some possible causes of the damage are:

  • An infection during pregnancy, such as rubella (German measles)
  • Problems with the way the brain develops before birth
  • A problem with different blood types in the mother and baby (Rh incompatibility)
  • Severe jaundice at birth
  • Premature birth
  • A lack of oxygen at some time during pregnancy or birth

Often the cause of CP is not known.

What are the symptoms?

The effects of CP can be mild to severe. The symptoms are different from person to person and may change over time. Symptoms may include:

  • Muscles that are hard to move or muscles that are very weak
  • Trouble with fine motor tasks, such as writing or cutting with scissors
  • Poor balance or coordination, which may cause trouble walking or standing up straight
  • Shaking, jerking, or writhing movements that cannot be controlled
  • Grimacing or drooling
  • Trouble with speech
  • Trouble controlling your bladder and bowels
  • Trouble hearing or seeing
  • Learning problems
  • Seizures

As you get older, you may also have:

  • Joint pain
  • Problems with vomiting and constipation
  • Swelling in your arms and legs
  • Trouble swallowing

How is it diagnosed?

Cerebral palsy is usually diagnosed when you are very young from your medical history, symptoms, and a physical exam.

How is it treated?

Cerebral palsy cannot be cured. Treatment can help your ability to use and control your muscles. Treatment may include therapy, counseling, medicine, braces and other devices and sometimes surgery.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy

Physical therapy and occupational therapy help you use and strengthen your muscles. These types of therapy can make it easier for you to take care of yourself. You may learn how to use devices such as walkers or wheelchairs to help you get places or stay in certain positions. Braces can also help by supporting joints when your muscles are not very strong. You may learn to use tools to help with daily activities, such as jar openers, buttonhooks, or household items with large handles.

Physical therapy also helps avoid a common and serious problem called contractures. Contractures mean the muscles and other tissues are stuck in a rigid, abnormal position. Contractures can cause problems with balance and the use of your muscles. It can keep you from being able to move joints, like your elbow and knee. Contractures can become permanent if they are not treated.

Speech therapy helps improve speaking, eating, chewing, and swallowing. Special techniques and devices, such as computers, can also help you communicate.


Counseling can help you cope with stress, frustration, depression, and other emotions.


Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicines to treat abnormal muscle movement and help control seizures.


Sometimes surgery can help vision problems or severe muscle problems such as contractures.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Get support. Talk with family and friends. Join a support group in your area.
  • Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening symptoms.
  • A healthy lifestyle may help. Talk to your healthcare provider about your personal and family medical history and your lifestyle habits. This will help you know what you can do to lower your risk for complications of cerebral palsy. For example:
    • Eat a healthy diet. Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what you need in a healthy diet.
    • Try to keep a healthy weight. If you are underweight, talk with your healthcare provider about healthy ways to gain weight.
    • Stay fit with the right kind of exercise for you. Talk with your healthcare provider before you start an exercise program.
    • Learn ways to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax. For example, take up a hobby, listen to music, or watch movies. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
    • If you smoke, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to quit smoking.
    • Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Learn as much as you can about cerebral palsy. You can get more information from:

How can I help prevent cerebral palsy?

In some cases, you may not be able to prevent cerebral palsy, but you may be able to manage or avoid some of the risk factors.

  • Prevent head injuries. Use car safety seats when your child is riding in a car and make sure your child wears a helmet during bicycle rides.
  • Newborns may be tested and treated for jaundice.
  • If you plan to get pregnant, ask your healthcare provider if you need a vaccination for German measles or Rubella.
  • If you are pregnant, you may need medicine to prevent Rh incompatibility.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-03
Last reviewed: 2014-10-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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