Cerebral Palsy Birth Injuries

Cerebral Palsy Infographic Cerebral palsy is a disability in which the brain is damaged and not able to properly control body and muscle movement. The particular type of brain damage that causes cerebral palsy typically occurs during childbirth when the supply of oxygen to the baby's brain is temporarily interrupted. Cerebral palsy is the most common type of serious birth injury and is the subject of many medical malpractice lawsuits.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is a neurologic disability affecting body movement, muscle tone, and posture. The word "cerebral" means relating to the brain or intellect and "palsy" means incapacity or paralysis. CP is caused by a specific type of damage to the brain that is usually suffered during a traumatic or difficult childbirth. When the flow of oxygen to the baby's brain is interrupted during childbirth, cells in the brain quickly begin to die. This is what eventually leads to cerebral palsy.

The severity of cerebral palsy and its physical symptoms can vary significantly for each individual. Mild or moderate cases of cerebral palsy might only result in a minor limp or awkward movements. Severe cerebral palsy cases can leave the child disabled and confined to a wheelchair.

Cerebral palsy is not a progressive disorder so it does not get worse with time. However, the damage to the brain that causes CP can never be reversed so there is no cure or effective treatment for the condition. In addition to the impact CP has on body movement, the condition can also result in seizures, cognitive impairment, and vision, hearing, and speech issues.

Different Types of Cerebral Palsy

There are 4 recognized types of cerebral palsy. The cerebral palsy subtypes are generally defined by the specific areas of the body that are affected and the particular type of brain injury and resulting disability.

Spastic CP

Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common form of the disorder accounting for over 80% of all CP cases. Spastic CP causes debilitating muscle stiffness in the affected area of the body. The muscle stiffness can make it very difficult or impossible to move certain parts of the individual's body.

When a normal person moves, their brain sends messages to their body which direct certain muscles to move in coordination with each other. In someone with spastic CP, these messages from the brain are impaired, causing muscles to suddenly stiffen and prevent movement.

Cases of spastic CP are categorized into 3 different subtypes based on the area of the body that is affected:

  • Diplegia: spastic CP affecting muscles in the individual's legs and lower body. The upper body is usually not impacted. Individuals with spastic diplegia CP often have difficulty walking without special crutches, as the condition forces their knees and legs to pull inwards.
  • Hemiplegia: spastic CP which affects one particular side of the body (left or right) and not the other. Most individuals with this subtype experience more stiffness in the arms and upper body of the affected side with the legs being less impacted.
  • Quadriplegia: spastic CP affects the individual's entire body. All four limbs and the face are impaired by excessive muscle stiffness. This subtype is the most severe and often leaves the child unable to walk.
Dyskinetic CP

Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is characterized by muscles that suddenly go from overly stiff to overly loose when the individual attempts to move. This causes sudden involuntary movements that can be very rapid or slow. Dyskinetic CP usually affects both the arms and the legs. In some cases, the muscles in the mouth and face are impaired, causing issues with talking and swallowing food.

Ataxic CP

Ataxic cerebral palsy involves a significant lack of balance and coordination caused by interruption of the messages from the brain. Individuals with this type of CP may appear very clumsy, have trouble walking, or struggle with fine motor coordination.

Mixed CP

This fourth category includes cases of cerebral palsy that involve a mix of 2 or more of the primary subtypes of CP. The most common type of mixed CP is spastic-dyskinetic.

Symptoms and Signs of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is usually the result of injury to a baby's brain caused by loss of oxygen during childbirth. As a result, individuals with CP are usually born with the disorder.

The signs of cerebral palsy are often hard to detect at first. So, a formal diagnosis of the disorder may not be made until months or even years after birth. Most children are diagnosed with CP after 10-12 months, and almost all cases are diagnosed before 24 months. You want to make a diagnosis quickly to begin intervention. But the longer it takes to notice the signs of cerebral palsy, the less severe the CP is likely to be.

If there is a high suspicion of CP, doctors will often use the Gross Motor Function Classification System for CP (GMFCS) which is a relatively reliable method to predict the child's future motor function. If you are concerned, you should raise the issue whether you child should get tested with your pediatrician.

The signs and indications of cerebral palsy vary based on type and severity. Below are some of the more common signs of CP at various developmental stages:

Under 6 Months:
  • Not able to lift and control head
  • Feels floppy like a rag doll when picked up
  • Feels overly stiff in legs or arms
  • Abnormal arching of back and neck stretching
  • Crossed or scissor legs caused by stiffness
  • Sudden contractions or movements (including seizures)
6-10 Months:
  • Cannot roll over on their own
  • Unable to bring hands together or bring hands to mouth
  • Only uses one side of the body with apparent stiffness or closed fist
  • Involuntary movements
  • Fails to meet development milestones
  • Speech, hearing, or vision issues
10 Months & Older:
  • Abnormal crawling with apparent dragging on one side
  • Drags butt or hops on knees instead of crawling on all fours
  • Limited range of motion and poor fine motor skills
  • Slow development
  • Excessive drooling

The signs of cerebral palsy will be identified by a pediatrician as the baby develops and usually leads to a diagnosis around 10-12 months.

Cerebral Palsy Causes

The underlying cause of all cases of cerebral palsy is the same. Cerebral palsy is caused by damage or developmental defects to the areas of the brain that control the movement of the body and coordination. Brain damage resulting in cerebral palsy can occur in the later stage of pregnancy, during labor and delivery, or shortly after birth.

  • Oxygen Deprivation: Oxygen deprivation (asphyxia) to the baby's brain is one of the leading causes of cerebral palsy. Throughout pregnancy and childbirth, a baby's brain is in a very vulnerable position. The brain needs a continuous supply of oxygen & blood. If the circulation of blood and oxygen to the baby's brain is interrupted or restricted, damage to brain cells can occur in a matter of minutes. There are a wide variety of obstetrical complications and events during pregnancy and childbirth that can threaten the supply of oxygen to the baby's brain.
  • Maternal Infections: Maternal infections during pregnancy, labor, and delivery can potentially cause damage to the baby's brain resulting in cerebral palsy. Recent studies have shown that viral infections, such as rubella and cytomegalovirus, and parasitic infections, like toxoplasmosis, can damage the baby's developing brain and result in cerebral palsy. Infections of the placental membranes and amniotic fluids (chorioamnionitis) can also damage brain cells in the baby and cause cerebral palsy.
  • Premature Birth: Babies that are born prematurely are 30 times more likely to be diagnosed with cerebral palsy compared to full-term babies. What often causes cerebral palsy in premature babies is that they frequently experience brain hemorrhages and periventricular leukomalacia (PVL). Both brain bleeds and PVL cause the type of brain damage that results in cerebral palsy.
  • C-Section Delays: When complications arise during labor and delivery, a timely emergency c-section can be the only way to avoid oxygen deprivation and brain damage to the baby. Unfortunately, mistakes are sometimes made by doctors in the delivery room, and emergency c-sections are not always performed when they should be. Even a very short delay in performing a c-section can damage the baby's brain and result in cerebral palsy. This is likely the leading cause for birth injuries from cerebral palsy leading to a medical malpractice lawsuit.
  • Head Trauma: External trauma to the baby's head during childbirth can potentially cause the type of brain damage that results in cerebral palsy. During a vaginal delivery, the baby often becomes stuck or has difficulty passing through the birth canal. When this occurs doctors will often use devices such as obstetrical forceps or vacuum extractors to dislodge the baby and facilitate delivery. Using these devices requires a high level of skill because they can easily cause an excessive level of force on the baby's head and cause internal damage.

The exact source of brain damage can vary greatly. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 20% of cerebral palsy cases are caused by labor and delivery events and 70% are attributable to events during pregnancy. Cerebral palsy birth injury lawyers would argue that the numbers are reversed.

It is hard to know the real answer because the medical literature often seems more interested in playing defense lawyer in a mythical cerebral palsy lawsuit in the journal article than taking about statistics in the unbiased, objective way we typically expect.

Suffice to say, it is also impossible to run from the fact that many cerebral palsy birth injury cases are the result of the negligence of a doctor or nurse. But victims also have to understand that sometimes cerebral palsy is not from a birth injury or medical mistake but from causes long before labor and delivery that are simply no one's fault.

Treatment for Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to certain areas of the developing brain that control body movement. Sadly, once these parts of the brain are damaged, they will never fully heal and return to normal. Cerebral palsy is not a progressive disorder, so it will not get worse over time. But it is a permanent condition. Therefore, treatment options for cerebral palsy are focused more on the management of symptoms and increasing the individual's quality of life. Treatment plans for cerebral palsy are typically multifaceted and involve some combination of therapy, medication and sometimes surgery:

  • Physical Therapy: Regular physical therapy is almost always the cornerstone of any cerebral palsy treatment program. Physical therapy can help children with CP to overcome and manage their body motor function and control. Physical therapy has been shown to improve strength, balance, posture, flexibility, and coordination in all types of cerebral palsy. Some physical therapy treatments utilize corrective orthotics.
  • Occupational Therapy: While physical therapy focuses on improving gross motor function, occupational therapy targets fine motor function (e.g., gripping, writing, using scissors). Occupational therapy plans are usually uniquely tailored to the needs of each individual and can be very beneficial particularly for children with very severe cases of CP who struggle for any kind of physical independence.
  • Speech Therapy: Not all children with cerebral palsy have speech issues, but for those that do, speech therapy will be one of the most important components of their treatment plan. Speech therapy does not just involve help improving language and oral communication skills, but also developing other skills such as eating and swallowing.
  • Medication: Various medications are often used to help manage some of the more problematic symptoms of cerebral palsy. For instance, medications have been effectively used to minimize seizures, muscle spasticity, and involuntary movements.
  • Surgery: There are a number of surgical treatment options to help children with certain types of cerebral palsy. Most of these surgical procedures are design for children with spastic CP. Spastic CP is characterized by excessive muscle tone and stiffness. A surgical intervention aims to alleviate the results of excessive muscle tone by lengthening muscles and tendons. For example, a child with spastic CP who walks on their toes can have surgery to lengthen the tendons in their legs and enable them to walk normally.

Physiotherapy, orthopedic appliances, massage, and taping also have roles to play in assisting the child's rehabilitation.

Financial Support for Cerebral Palsy

Caring for a child with cerebral palsy is expensive. Treatment and management of CP can require extensive therapy and mobility aids that are not always covered by normal health insurance. The good news is that there are numerous publicly sponsored programs and organizations to help families with the financial burden imposed by cerebral palsy.

FAQs: Cerebral Palsy

Below are simple, easy-to-understand, answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about cerebral palsy.

What Causes Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to cells in the brain during its earliest developmental stages. The damage to the brain is usually the result of oxygen deprivation caused by complications or trauma during childbirth or pregnancy. Cerebral palsy is rarely a genetic disorder that children inherit from their parents. Cerebral palsy is the result of an injury or something that goes wrong during gestation or birth.

Can You Get Cerebral Palsy Later in Life?

No. Cerebral palsy is not a disease that can develop at different stages of life. Cerebral palsy is usually the result of a hypoxic injury (loss of oxygen) to the brain during its early development. The brain damage that causes cerebral palsy occurs during pregnancy, birth, or in the weeks after birth. It cannot occur later in life when the brain is already fully developed.

What Are the Risk Factors for Cerebral Palsy?

There is data suggesting a genetic component to cerebral palsy in a minority of cases. But most complications or problems during pregnancy or labor and delivery will increase the risk of a baby suffering brain damage from oxygen loss and being diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Delivery complications that cause acute oxygen deprivation (e.g., uterine rupture or umbilical cord prolapse) carry the highest risk level.

When is Cerebral Palsy Diagnosed?

Very severe cases of cerebral palsy can usually be diagnosed immediately after birth, particularly when they are linked to a complication or adverse event during delivery. For less severe cases, however, cerebral palsy is usually not diagnosed until the child is 2 or 3 and sometimes even later.

Can a Child Grow Out of Cerebral Palsy?

No. Unfortunately, cerebral palsy is a permanent disorder and it is not something a child will grow out as the child ages. CP is caused by damage to cells in the brain during development. Once this brain damage occurs it cannot be corrected.

Supporting Literature on Cerebral Palsy

Howard, J. J., et al. (2022). Understanding skeletal muscle in cerebral palsy: a path to personalized medicine? Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 64(3), 289-295.

This study examined current research on cerebral palsy’s impact on skeletal muscles and proposed a treatment paradigm that incorporated this research.  

King, A. R., et al. (2022). Early Diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy in Low-and Middle-Income Countries. Brain Sciences, 12(5), 539.

This study looked at early diagnoses of cerebral palsy in low- and middle-income countries. The researchers found that healthcare providers in these countries use General Movement Assessments, neonatal MRIs, cranial ultrasounds, Hammersmith Neonatal Neurological Examinations, and Hammersmith Infant Neurological Examinations. They concluded that additional research was needed to determine these tools’ accuracy and feasibility. 

Manikandan, M., et al. (2022). Use of health services and unmet needs among adults with cerebral palsy in Ireland. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.

This study looked at challenges that Irish adults with cerebral palsy had regarding health services and unmet needs related to healthcare. The researchers found that adults with CP primarily underwent physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and prosthetic services. Unmet needs were most significant in physiotherapy and occupational therapy services. The researchers recommended the planning of services that address patient needs.  

Badawi, N., et al. (2021). Perinatal care with a view to preventing cerebral palsy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 63(2), 156-161.

This article looked at perinatal care as a means to prevent cerebral palsy. It examined recent research in this field, improved clinical care in high-income countries, population-based registries' ability to track CP prevalence, and CP rate reductions. 

Smith, S. E., et al. (2021). Adults with cerebral palsy require ongoing neurologic care: a systematic review. Annals of neurology, 89(5), 860-871.

This article looked at cerebral palsy in adults. The researchers reported that CP increased the risk of myelopathy and strokes in adults. They also reported that neurological factors contribute to chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and motor function decline. The researchers suggested that 

End, C., et al. (2021). Risks and benefits of adenotonsillectomy in children with cerebral palsy with obstructive sleep apnea: a systematic review. The Laryngoscope, 132(3), 687-694.

This article looked at whether adenotonsillectomies were safe and beneficial for children with cerebral palsy and sleep apnea. The researchers found that the procedure improved sleep apnea symptoms in some children with cerebral palsy. However, they found that many patients continued to experience sleep apnea and required a tracheostomy.  

Strom, M.S., et al. (2021). Maternal Chronic Conditions and Risk of Cerebral Palsy in Offspring: A National Cohort Study. Pediatrics March, 147(3), e20201137. 

This study found that maternal Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 diabetes, lupus, and Crohn’s disease increased the cerebral palsy risk in offspring. 

MacLennan, A., et al. (2015). Cerebral Palsy: causes, pathways, and the role of genetic variants. Am J Obstet Gynecol, 213(6), 779-788. 

This study found that CP rates remained stable at 2-3.5 cases per 1000 live births in the last 40 years, even with modern technologies.