Cerebral Palsy

Maybe someone at your school has cerebral palsy — or maybe you have it and you've been dealing with it your whole life. At a time when you're more conscious of your appearance and body image, it can be tough to be in a wheelchair or to have people tease you about the way you walk. But having cerebral palsy doesn't mean a girl or guy can't do what other teens do.

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy, or CP for short, is the most common developmental disability in the United States. More than 500,000 people in the United States have CP. Every year, almost 5,000 babies and infants are diagnosed with the condition.

Cerebral palsy (pronounced: seh-ree-brul pawl-zee) usually is a congenital (pronounced: kun-jen-ih-tul) disorder, which means that it's a problem that develops before or at birth. It also can result from brain damage that occurs in the first few months or years after birth.

Cerebral palsy is a disorder of the brain that affects a person's ability to coordinate body movements. (This ability is referred to as motor skills.) The condition also affects muscle tone.

The three types of cerebral palsy are: spastic, athetoid, and ataxic.

How Does Cerebral Palsy Affect People?

People can have one or more of three different forms of CP:

  1. Spastic (pronounced: spas-tik) cerebral palsy: People with this form of CP have difficulty moving or their movements are stiff. Between 70% and 80% of people with CP have this type.
  2. Athetoid (pronounced: ah-thuh-toid) cerebral palsy: People with this type of CP have difficulty controlling movement and may have involuntary body movements.
  3. Ataxic (pronounced: ah-tak-sik) cerebral palsy: People with this form of CP have problems with balance, coordination, and depth perception; their movements often seem shaky.

The most common mixed form of CP is a combination of the spastic and athetoid types.

Because cerebral palsy affects muscle control, people with CP may have problems walking or eating. Some have learning disabilities or behavior problems, but many do not. Some also have other medical problems, such as seizures or epilepsy, hearing impairment, and speech problems.

What Causes It?

In most cases, doctors don't know exactly what causes CP, but they do know that it's caused by damage to the brain — either while a baby is in the womb or as a result of brain damage in the first few months or years after the baby is born. If a baby is very underweight at birth or doesn't receive enough oxygen during or right after birth, the risk of CP is increased. Babies who weigh less than 31/2 pounds or who are born prematurely are at risk for developing CP. The lower the birth weight, the higher the risk.

CP isn't contagious: A person can't get it from someone who has it or pass it to someone else. Even a mother with CP can't pass it on to her unborn baby. Cerebral palsy also isn't progressive, which means that it won't become worse over time.

What Do Doctors Do?

CP is usually diagnosed when a child is very young. By the teen years, someone with CP will probably already know he or she has the condition.

Sometimes a doctor suspects an infant has CP if the baby was premature and had complications shortly before or after birth, such as bleeding inside the brain or lung problems. Doctors may also consider CP a possibility if a baby doesn't sit up or begin to walk by a certain age. (Doctors call these important skills and others like them developmental milestones because they mark different stages of a baby's development.)

Doctors can't check for CP with a blood test or a urine test. Sometimes, though, a doctor will do these tests to be sure that some other condition is not causing the symptoms. Tests that scan the brain, such as a CT scan or MRI, may be used to detect a damaged area of the brain. A doctor may order an electroencephalogram (pronounced: eh-lek-tro-en-seh-fuh-lo-gram, also called an EEG) for kids with seizures. An EEG uses electrodes placed on the scalp to record the brain's electrical currents. To diagnose CP, a doctor must do a complete examination, paying close attention to muscle tone and strength, reflexes, and coordination.

Because CP affects each individual differently, there are lots of ways to treat and manage it. A person's doctors, parents, teachers, and therapists all work together to develop a treatment plan that best suits someone's individual needs.

Some teens have only mild problems with movement. Others, though, need crutches or wheelchairs to get around. Teens with CP may go to physical therapy for help with movement problems. They also may go to occupational therapy for help with skills like handwriting or speech therapy for help with speech problems.

Some teens may have surgery or be given leg braces as part of their treatment. And teens with CP often take medicine to help control related conditions, like seizures.

Cerebral Palsy and the Teen Years

Puberty can be a difficult time, but it may be especially challenging for teens with CP. Rapid growth can cause weight gain and clumsiness in any teen, but can make it even more difficult for someone with CP to move around. A person's muscles can also become tighter as the bones grow, which can restrict movement even more.

What can teens with CP do? That depends on the type of CP a person has. Some people are affected mildly, others more widely. But many guys and girls with CP can do the same sorts of things that other teens do, like enjoying extracurricular activities, listening to or playing music, hanging out with friends, reading, going to the mall, and dating, to name just a few.

If you're wondering how to treat someone with CP, treat that person the way you would anyone else — with courtesy and respect. Some people with CP might need extra help once in a while, like when reaching for something. If that seems to be the case, you might want to offer to help. And if you have a friend with CP, don't be afraid to talk to your friend about it.

Teens with CP have the same feelings and emotions other guys and girls do. Everyone wants to feel like they fit in, and being in a wheelchair or having other physical problems can make someone feel self-conscious or left out. So if you know someone with CP, try to make that person feel welcome.

And if you have CP, remember that lots of other people out there are dealing with it, too. It might not be fun to feel different sometimes, but look at everything you do and enjoy and you'll probably discover you're not really that different from other teens.

Reviewed by: Steven J. Bachrach, MD
Date reviewed: April 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.