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Cerebral palsy, also commonly referred to as CP, is an umbrella term that describes a group of disorders caused by damage to the brain. It results in physical impairment affecting body movement, coordination, balance and posture. Cerebral palsy is neither contagious nor progressive.

Cerebral palsy does not affect every child in the same way. It is not a specific condition and does not have a single cause. There are different types of cerebral palsy, which are related to the part of the brain that has been affected. The effects vary from child to child and some children can have a combination of one or more of the different types of cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is sometimes referred to as a ‘developmental condition’ because damage can occur during the prenatal, natal or postnatal periods (before, during or after birth). Sometimes other areas of the brain are involved, affecting vision, communication and learning.

Cerebral palsy is sometimes visible or noticeable at around the time of birth, or during early childhood. It is a wide-ranging condition and has many complex symptoms, with various types and degrees of motor impairment. No two children with cerebral palsy will be affected in quite the same way – your child is an individual and their pattern of development will be their own.

Cerebral palsy cannot be cured, although early support and therapeutic interventions can help with a child’s development. It does not normally affect life expectancy.

The symptoms of cerebral palsy include an early change in muscle tone. Muscle tone is measured by the amount of resistance there is to a stretch on a muscle. Low muscle tone means the affected area feels floppy. This is called hypotonia. High muscle tone means the muscle feels stiff – this is hypertonia or spasticity.

Although cerebral palsy is divided into different types, there are a number of physical symptoms that each type has in common, which include abnormal muscle tone, altered reflexes, spasticity and difficulty in muscle control. Movements may be jerky or slow.

Cerebral palsy is the most common physical impairment in childhood. Current estimates suggest that one in every 400 children is affected by cerebral palsy. This means about 1,800 babies are diagnosed with cerebral palsy in the UK every year. Cerebral palsy affects people from all social backgrounds and ethnic groups.

“Never let having cerebral palsy get in the way of what you want to do.” Nicolas Hamilton, racing driver


It is often not possible for doctors to explain exactly why part of the brain has been damaged or has failed to develop, as there may be no obvious or single reason. Cerebral palsy can be caused by multiple and complex factors, although the cause in a number of cases is unknown. Relevant factors that can lead to cerebral palsy include:

  • infection in the early part of pregnancy.
  • premature birth – pre-term babies are extremely vulnerable and at risk of haemorrhage, infection and oxygen deprivation to the brain. A third of babies born prematurely go on to develop cerebral palsy. There is also an increased risk of cerebral palsy in premature babies with a birth weight of under 500g.
  • a difficult birth, which can cause injury to the baby’s head, and if a baby has difficulty breathing there is sometimes a risk that not enough oxygen reaches their brain
  • illness or injury after birth – this can include the effects of other conditions or illnesses, such as meningitis and hydrocephalus, a head injury, very high fever or a lack of oxygen from choking or near-miss cot death
  • genetic links, although this is very rare