What Is Cerebral Palsy?

BabyCerebral palsy (CP) is not really a singular disease or condition. Cerebral palsy actually includes a grouping of related disorders which impair the ability of the brain to control the normal movement and coordination of the muscles in the body. The word cerebral means the brain and the medical term palsy basically means weakness or paralysis. Cerebral palsy has been recognized as a distinct disorder for centuries. In fact, the first written description of cerebral palsy as a known medical disorder dates back 2,500 years to medical texts written by the accident Greeks. The term "cerebral palsy" was given in the late 19th century by Dr. William Olsen (one of the founding professors of the renowned Johns Hopkins Medical School). Today, cerebral palsy is the most common cause of physical and mental disabilities in children. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), cerebral palsy occurs in 3.5 out of every 1,000 children born in the U.S.

Cerebral palsy is the result of a very specific type of damage to the developing brain during pregnancy or childbirth. The brain needs a constant circulation of oxygenated blood. When the delivery of oxygen is interrupted or restricted during pregnancy or childbirth it can cause permanent damage to cells in the baby's brain - which is still developing. With cerebral palsy, the neurologic injury occurs in the outer layer of the brain known as the "cerebral cortex." The cerebral cortex is the section of the brain responsible for moving the body by sending electrical impulses directing muscles to move. Once damaged the baby's brain cells cannot regenerate. Eventually, as the baby grows the injury to their cerebral cortex leaves their brain unable to properly control body movements.

The types and physical symptoms of CP vary. A child with a pretty minor case of CP might only have an awkward gait, limp or trouble writing. By contrast, children with severe cerebral palsy are often completely unable to walk and confined to wheelchairs. It is not a progressive disease, so the symptoms of cerebral palsy will not worsen over time. In addition to physical impairments, cerebral palsy will often result in mental impairments and other conditions like vision/hearing/speech issues or seizures.

Types of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy comes in 4 different varieties, based mainly on the specific type of muscle control impairment involved. The 4 different types of cerebral palsy are:


Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common form of cerebral palsy, accounting for around 81% of all diagnosed cases of CP. The primary feature of spastic CP is severe muscle stiffness in a particular part of the body. Spastic CP is further categorized into subtypes based on what area of the body is impaired:

  • Diplegia: only the muscles in the legs and lower body are impaired and the arms and upper body are normal.
  • Hemiplegia: muscle stiffness occurs only on a particular side (left/right) of the body, with the arm and upper body more affected.
  • Quadriplegia: excessive muscle stiffness over the entire body, impairing all four limbs on both sides.

Children with dyskinetic cerebral palsy are impaired by both excessive muscle spasticity (hypertonia) and muscle weakness (hypotonia), resulting in slow, involuntary muscle movements in the arms and legs. Sometimes the face and mouth are also affected.


With ataxic cerebral palsy there is severe lack of body coordination and balance, particularly with fine motor movements such as writing. Children with ataxic CP also have difficulty walking. This is the least common of the 3 main subtypes.


A small percentage of children with cerebral palsy are impairment by a combination of the different subtypes. This is called mixed cerebral palsy. The most common combo in cases of mixed CP is spastic-dyskinetic.

Signs and Symptoms of Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is not actually a singular disease or condition, but rather an umbrella term for a grouping of related neurologic disorders impairing body movement. This means that the fundamental symptoms and effects of cerebral palsy vary greatly in each individual child. Not only are there different subtypes of CP, each with its own unique characteristics, but there is also a wide spectrum of severity. So even with the same type of cerebral palsy, actual physical symptoms and disabilities will vary greatly between moderate and severe cases.

Cerebral Palsy Research and Educational Resources

The organizations below are good educational resources for additional information on the latest cerebral palsy research and scientific studies:

P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Tel: 800-352-9424

Cerebral Palsy Foundation
3 Columbus Circle, 15th Floor
New York, NY 10019
Tel: 212-520-1686

United Cerebral Palsy (UCP)
1825 K St NW
Washington, DC 20006
Tel: 800-USA-5UCP (872-5827)

March of Dimes
1275 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605
Tel: 888-MODIMES (663-4637)

Easter Seals
233 South Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606
Tel: 800-221-6827

Child Neurology Foundation
201 Chicago Avenue, Suite 200
Minneapolis, MN 55415
Tel: 612-928-6325