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What is Cerebral Palsy?

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

While some people believe that the term "cerebral palsy" (CP) refers to a specific disease, it actually refers to a range of disorders involved the control of muscles. Cerebral palsy can be caused by many different problems. About half a million people in the US have some form of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is usually congenital and becomes evident early in life. However, it can be acquired later, for example, as a result of a head injury. Researchers now believe that congenital cerebral palsy is caused by faulty cell development in the embryo in the early stages of pregnancy. Maternal infection with the rubella virus (German measles) during pregnancy and severe jaundice of the newborn (as from untreated Rh incompatibility) are some of the conditions that have been associated with the development of cerebral palsy.

Children with cerebral palsy usually show symptoms within the first three years of life. They may be slower than their peers in achieving motor milestones like sitting upright, crawling, and walking. Symptoms range from mild and barely noticeable to severe and debilitating, and can include difficulty maintaining balance or walking, problems with fine motor tasks, or uncontrolled involuntary movements. The symptoms vary from person to person and may change over time.

However, cerebral palsy is NOT a progressive condition, meaning that it does not worsen over time. Cerebral palsy can occur by itself in an otherwise entirely normal child or it may be accompanied by other problems (such as, for example, a seizure disorder or mental retardation).