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Cerebral palsy is a permanent physical condition that affects muscle control. It is caused by damage to, or lack of development in, a part of the brain that controls movement. Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability in childhood occuring in one in every 500 babies. Cerebral palsy is often called 'CP' for short.
Cerebral palsy causes problems with motor control and co-ordination. For example, weakness and stiffness in muscles, awkwardness, slowness, shakiness and difficulties with balance.
A child with cerebral palsy may have slight clumsiness in one arm or leg (monoplegia), or one side of the body may be affected (hemiplegia). There may be muscle control issues in mostly the lower limbs (diplegia), or in both arms and legs and the torso (quadriplegia).
Other difficulties can include problems with speech, hearing or vision; epilepsy; intellectual or learning difficulties; perceptual difficulties such as judging the size and shape of objects; gastro-oesophageal reflux (heartburn); orthopaedic problems (ie problems with bones); constipation; feeding difficulties; saliva control problems; or repeated chest infections.
There is a wide range of intellectual ability in children with cerebral palsy. Children with even a very severe physical disability can have completely normal intelligence.
Many children have a mixture of several of these movement patterns.
There are many different causes of cerebral palsy. A problem with the brain can occur:
In some children, despite a careful review and various tests, the cause of cerebral palsy remains unknown. With new technologies such as MRI brain scans and sophisticated blood tests, more causes are slowly being identified.
Management of cerebral palsy is focused on the problems of muscle control and movement, and the treatment of additional health issues. Empowering, supporting and educating families is the most important aspect of care.
Produced by the Royal Children's Hospital (RCH) Department of Developmental Medicine. First published Jan 2005. Updated October 2010.