Cerebral Palsy (CP) | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of cerebral palsy?

Symptoms of (cerebral palsy) CP can vary from child to child, ranging from muscle weakness and poor motor control, to muscle tightness (called spasticity), to movement disorders (called dyskinesias). Children with CP may also have additional problems, including:

  • seizures
  • vision loss or impairment
  • hearing loss or impairment
  • speech impairment
  • learning disabilities
  • behavioral problems
  • developmental delays
  • swallowing difficulties
  • challenges with nutrition
  • respiratory problems
  • gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • constipation
  • fragile bones

Infants with CP are often slow to reach developmental milestones, such as learning to roll over, sit, crawl or walk. They may also have certain reflexes present past the time these reflexes normally disappear (primitive reflexes). While the specific brain injury or issue responsible for CP doesn't progress or worsen over time, your child's symptoms may change with age.

What causes cerebral palsy?

There are many causes of CP, but all occur either during pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth. Common causes include brain malformations, infection or stroke. Oxygen deprivation is now understood to be accountable for only a small percentage of cases of CP. In many cases, the cause is unknown.

Sometimes, CP occurs as a complication of another condition, like premature birth, low birth weight or neurological trauma.

What are the different types of cerebral palsy?

Clinicians classify CP according to the kind of motor function the child experiences:

  • Spastic diplegia: spastic movements of the legs
  • Spastic quadriplegia: spastic movements in all four limbs (both arms and legs)
  • Spastic hemiplegia: spasticity affecting one half, or one side, of the body (for example, the right arm and right leg)
  • Athetoid: involuntary, uncontrolled and purposeless movements
  • Dystonia: sustained or repetitive muscle contractions that do not relax, resulting in twisting or abnormal fixed postures. It is sometimes helpful to think of dystonia as an "overflow" of movements due to abnormal signals from the brain's movement system. This differs from spasticity, which describes increased muscle tone, due to exaggerated stretch reflexes. Reflexes are normally suppressed by signals from the brain and spinal cord that allow us to move properly, and an inability to properly suppress reflexes results in spasticity.

It is not uncommon to have both spasticity and dystonia with CP, and it is often difficult to tell them apart because they both result in too much muscle tone.