Cerebral palsy

Last updated: March 22, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a heterogenous group of disorders affecting the muscle tone and the development of movement and posture. CP results from a non-progressive damage to the brain in utero or during infantile development up to the age of 3 years. Depending on the affected brain area, spastic, ataxic, or dyskinetic cerebral palsy develops. While, in many cases, there is no identifiable cause, risk factors for cerebral palsy are prematurity, perinatal complications such as chorioamnionitis, birth trauma with intracerebral hemorrhage, or postnatal infections such as meningitis. The diagnosis of CP is usually not made until features become apparent as children fail to meet certain milestones during the postneonatal period (e.g., inability to roll over or sit independently). Physical indicators of spastic cerebral palsy include spastic paresis of multiple limbs and joint contractures, scissors gait, and persistence of primitive reflexes. Patients with non-spastic cerebral palsy present with dysarthria and abnormal involuntary movements (choreoathetoid, dystonic, or ataxic) that worsen with stress. Seizure disorders and intellectual disability are associated with all types. Diagnosis is mainly based on the clinical picture but cranial ultrasound or MRI can help identify the causative lesion (e.g., hemorrhage, brain malformation). Since there is no cure, management follows a multidisciplinary approach with a focus on treating contractures (e.g., bracing, antispasmodics, physical therapy, surgery) and ensuring social participation (e.g., speech therapy, social support). Depending on the severity and type of cerebral palsy, patients may be slightly restricted or severely disabled and unable to walk.

Epidemiologytoggle arrow icon

  • Most common motor disability in children
  • Approx. 2/1000 live births in developed countries


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiologytoggle arrow icon


Classificationtoggle arrow icon


Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon

Patients may present with mixed types of cerebral palsy (e.g., combination of spastic and athetoid CP).

Definite hand preference before 1 year of age, suggests a one-sided muscle weakness and is a red flag for hemiplegia!


Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon

Diagnosis is mainly based on the clinical picture.


Differential diagnosestoggle arrow icon

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

There is no curative therapy for cerebral palsy. Management is dependent on the severity and nature of symptoms. A multidisciplinary approach is employed in management to improve function and quality of life.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Cerebral Palsy (CP) - Data & Statistics for Cerebral Palsy . Updated: May 2, 2016. Accessed: July 3, 2017.
  2. Abdel-Hamid HZ. Cerebral Palsy. In: Kao A, Cerebral Palsy. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: August 12, 2016. Accessed: July 3, 2017.
  3. Le T, Bhushan V, Chen V, King M. First Aid for the USMLE Step 2 CK. McGraw-Hill Education ; 2015
  4. Jenkins B, McInnis M, Lewis C. Step-Up to USMLE Step 2 CK. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ; 2015
  5. Glader L, Barkoudah E. Clinical Features and Classification of Cerebral Palsy. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: May 31, 2017. Accessed: July 3, 2017.

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 Evidence-based content, created and peer-reviewed by physicians. Read the disclaimer