Cerebral Palsy: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Cerebral palsy is a medical condition resulting from abnormal functioning or development of the brain. Read this lesson to learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for people with cerebral palsy.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Before we jump into the details of cerebral palsy, it would be useful to know what it is! Cerebral palsy is a condition that causes problems with involuntary body movements and muscle contractions, and it usually results from a brain injury or abnormal brain development due to a genetic mutation. Physical symptoms vary based on the severity of the injury or development issue. Let's take a look at some of the details.

Causes of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy can result from a brain injury or abnormality. Injuries most often occur during pregnancy, during the birthing process, or during the first few years of life. The first two to three years of life are when the brain is undergoing rapid development and is at risk of injury, causing permanent problems.

For example, genetic mutations may prevent cells from multiplying properly during pregnancy, causing the brain to develop abnormally. Premature babies (those born early) may experience complications that lead to cerebral palsy. Complications during the birthing process may injure the brain through physical contact or lack of blood, oxygen, or nutrients. Infections like meningitis may also cause cerebral palsy. In other cases, the cause may be completely unknown.

If we dive deeper into the causes of cerebral palsy, we can identify four specific causes of brain damage that lead to its development.

  1. Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is a type of brain injury where the white matter is affected. When this type of damage occurs, the injured cells die, creating holes in the brain that eventually fill with fluid. This can lead to cerebral palsy, as the connections are impaired, causing physical or intellectual impairments.
  2. Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) is bleeding in the brain, and it isn't always preventable. Bleeding can damage parts of the brain related to motor development or it can kill cells completely.
  3. Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) is quite a mouthful, but this is oxygen deprivation that leads to permanent brain damage or cell death.
  4. Cerebral dysgenesis occurs when the brain develops abnormally. Unlike the other causes of cerebral palsy discussed above, cerebral dysgenesis is caused by brain malformation rather than brain injury.

Though this list isn't exhaustive of all causes of cerebral palsy, they are the most common causes that have been identified.

Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy

Once the damage is done, what types of symptoms develop? In general, cerebral palsy causes impairments of the following:

  1. Muscle tone
  2. Balance
  3. Movement control and coordination
  4. Reflexes
  5. Posture
  6. Fine motor function (small body movements like picking up items or holding objects)
  7. Gross motor function (larger body movements like walking, running, and jumping)
  8. Oral motor function (movement of facial muscles to speak, eat, and swallow)

Severe cases are usually observable shortly after birth, but milder cases may take awhile to present. Newborns may have trouble suckling or crying, or they may experience seizures. Other cases are apparent through abnormal body positions.

Sometimes, symptoms don't become obvious until later in life when the child doesn't meet developmental milestones, like sitting up alone, rolling over, crawling, and walking. Other symptoms may include excessive drooling, joint stiffness, increased accidents due to impaired physical movements, or even frequent seizures.

Symptoms vary with each individual case.

Effects on the muscles may display differently. Sometimes muscle spasms may be common; in other cases, muscles may be very stiff. Muscle problems can lead to favoring one side of the body, difficulty crawling or walking, and difficulty speaking or eating.

Symptoms might be isolated to one area of the body, or they may affect the entire body. Each case is different and may cause slightly different symptoms.

Other symptoms may include delayed intellectual development, difficulty seeing or hearing, mental health impairments, or even incontinence.

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