Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the name given to the permanent neurological problems resulting from damage to the brain around the time of birth. It is not a progressive condition, however the nature of the symptoms and problems may change over time during growth and development. There is huge variation in the severity and type of symptoms, ranging from completely wheelchair bound and dependent on others for all activities of daily living, to para-olympic athletes with only subtle problems with coordination or mobility.


Causes of Cerebral Palsy


  • Maternal infections
  • Trauma during pregnancy


  • Birth asphyxia
  • Pre-term birth


  • Meningitis
  • Severe neonatal jaundice
  • Head injury


Type of Cerebral Palsy

  • Spastic: hypertonia (increased tone) and reduced function resulting from damage to upper motor neurones
  • Dyskinetic: problems controlling muscle tone, with hypertonia and hypotonia, causing athetoid movements and oro-motor problems. This is the result of damage to the basal ganglia.
  • Ataxic: problems with coordinated movement resulting from damage to the cerebellum
  • Mixed: a mix of spastic, dyskinetic and/or ataxic features

Spastic CP is also known as pyramidal CP. Dyskinetic CP is also known as athetoid CP and extrapyramidal CP.


Patters of Spastic Cerebral Palsy

  • Monoplegia: one limb affected
  • Hemiplegia: one side of the body affected
  • Diplegia: four limbs are affects, but mostly the legs
  • Quadriplegia: four limbs are affected more severely, often with seizures, speech disturbance and other impairments



It is difficult to predict the extent of cerebral palsy or even whether it will occur based on the events in the peri-natal period. Children at risk of developing cerebral palsy, such as those with hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy, need to be followed up to identify any signs and symptoms that develop.

Signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy will become more evident during development:

  • Failure to meet milestones
  • Increased or decreased tone, generally or in specific limbs
  • Hand preference below 18 months is a key sign to remember for exams
  • Problems with coordination, speech or walking
  • Feeding or swallowing problems
  • Learning difficulties


Neurological Examination

You can gain a lot of information about a child from their gait:

  • Hemiplegic / diplegic gait: indicates an upper motor neurone lesion
  • Broad based gait / ataxic gait: indicates a cerebellar lesion
  • High stepping gait: indicates foot drop or a lower motor neurone lesion
  • Waddling gait: indicates pelvic muscle weakness due to myopathy
  • Antalgic gait (limp): indicates localised pain


Upper Motor Neurone

Lower Motor Neurone


Muscle bulk preserved

Reduced muscle bulk with fasciculations





Slightly reduced

Dramatically reduced




Patients with cerebral palsy may have a hemiplegic or diplegic gait. This gait is caused by increased muscle tone and spasticity in the legs. The leg will be extended with plantar flexion of the feet and toes. This means they have to swing the leg around in a large semicircle when moving their leg from behind them to in front. There is not enough space to swing the extended leg in a straight line below them.

They will have signs of an upper motor neurone lesion, with good muscle bulk, increased tone, brisk reflexes and slightly reduced power. Power may be normal. Look for athetoid movements that indicate extrapyramidal (basal ganglia) involvement. Test for coordination to look for cerebellar involvement.

TOM TIP: Get used to assessing and recognising the patterns of upper and lower motor neurone lesions. Cerebral palsy is a perfect condition for examiners to bring to OSCEs, because signs are reliable and patients are stable. The differential diagnosis of an upper motor neurone lesion is acquired brain injury or a tumour.


Complications and Associated Conditions

  • Learning disability
  • Epilepsy
  • Kyphoscoliosis
  • Muscle contractures
  • Hearing and visual impairment
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux



Cerebral palsy is a permanent condition with problems that are life-long. It cannot be cured, but there are many ways to manage the symptoms and maximise function. The focus is on supporting the patient to achieve the most fulfilled and independent life. When asked how you would manage complex conditions such as cerebral palsy the answer should always start with “management will involve a multi-disciplinary team approach”.

Physiotherapy is used to stretch and strengthen muscles, maximise function and prevent muscle contractures.

Occupational therapy is used to help patients manage their everyday activities, such as getting dressed and using the bathroom. That can involve techniques to perform tasks despite disability. They can also make adaptations and supply equipment, such as rails for assistance or fitting a hoist for a patient who is entirely wheelchair bound.

Speech and language therapy can help with speech and swallowing. When swallowing difficultly prevents them meeting their nutritional requirements they may require an NG tube or PEG tube to be fitted.

Dieticians can help ensure they meet nutritional requirements. Some children may require PEG feeding through a port on their abdomen that gives direct access to the stomach.

Orthopaedic surgeons can perform procedures to release contractures or lengthen tendons (tenotomy).

Paediatricians will regularly see the child to optimise their medications. This may involve:

  • Muscle relaxants (e.g. baclofen) for muscle spasticity and contractures
  • Anti-epileptic drugs for seizures
  • Glycopyrronium bromide for excessive drooling

Social workers to help with benefits and support.

Charities and support groups provide opportunities to connect with others affected by cerebral palsy and learn and share information on the condition.


Last updated January 2020
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