What Causes Cerebral Palsy? What Causes Cerebral Palsy?
Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage that affects a child’s ability to control his or her muscles. The part of the brain that is damaged determines what parts of the body are affected. There are many possible causes of the brain damage. Some causes affect how the child’s brain develops during the first 6 months of pregnancy. These causes include genetic conditions and problems with the blood supply to the brain. Other causes of cerebral palsy happen after the brain has developed. These causes can occur during later pregnancy, delivery, or the first years of the child’s life. They include bacterial meningitis and other infections, bleeding in the brain, lack of oxygen, severe jaundice, and head injury.

Children who are born prematurely or who are very low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams or about 3 1/3 pounds) are more likely to have problems that might lead to cerebral palsy. However, children who are full term and normal birth weight can also have cerebral palsy.

CDC funds the North Atlantic Neuro-Epidemiology Alliance (NANEA) to study factors that might make it more likely a child will develop cerebral palsy. These factors include infection, bleeding, and raised temperature during pregnancy. The studies are being done in Denmark. [Read more on the NANEA Web site – click on Research and then on Cerebral Palsy]

CDC has studied the causes of cerebral palsy among 3- to 10-year-old children in MADDSP in 1991. For 10% of the children, the cause of their cerebral palsy had happened after they were 30 days old. The most common causes in these children were meningitis, child abuse, stroke, and car crashes. [Read the MADDSP study of causes of cerebral palsy]

CDC also looked at the causes of cerebral palsy among 10-year-old children in MADDS in the mid 1980s. For 16% of the children, the cause of their cerebral palsy also had happened after they were 30 days old. The most common of these causes were infections, head injury, and stroke. [Read a summary of the MADDS study that looked at causes of cerebral palsy]

If you would like to learn more about a specific genetic condition that you think could cause cerebral palsy, you can go to the National Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference Web site. Information on each genetic condition includes symptoms, how common the condition is, related genes, treatments, and links to resources where you can learn more about the condition. The Genetics Home Reference Web site also can help you learn more about genetics, including about genetic testing, genetic counseling, and gene therapy. [Go to the Genetics Home Reference Web site]

Some causes of cerebral palsy can be prevented. For example, bike helmets and car seats can prevent head injuries that might result in cerebral palsy. Another cause that can be prevented is kernicterus, a kind of brain damage that happens when a newborn baby has too much jaundice. In some newborn babies, the liver makes too much yellow pigment, called bilirubin. If too much bilirubin builds up in a new baby’s body, the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow. This yellow coloring is called jaundice. A little jaundice is not a problem. It is actually very common in newborn babies and usually goes away by itself. Some babies, however, have too much jaundice. If not treated, these high levels of bilirubin can damage a baby’s brain. Kernicterus most often causes cerebral palsy and hearing loss, but in some children it can also cause mental retardation. Kernicterus can be prevented by using special lights (phototherapy) or other therapies to treat babies. [Read more about kernicterus]

Cerebral palsy cannot be cured. Treatment can, however, help a person take part in family, school, and work activities as much as possible. There are many treatments, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, medicine, operations, and braces.