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Welcome to Cerebral Palsy:
Simple Notes on a Complex Problem


Cerebral Palsy occurs when the brain is damaged and inaccurate messages are sent from the brain to the muscles. This can limit movement of the muscles in the entire body or cause the muscles to move in an uncoordinated or inefficient manner. Damage to the brain occurs before, during birth or before the child's 2nd year. The Central Nervous System is not mature at birth and continues to develop until the age of 2 years--if damage occurs before this time it will affect the developing brain and movement patterns of the child. Cerebral Palsy is non-progressive, nonhereditary and non contagious. Cerebral Palsy is an umbrella term describing different types of movement disorders.

  • Spastic Diplegia - (di meaning two) affects legs, however arms may be minimally involved. Spastic refers to muscle tone, which is usually high muscle tone when muscles appear "tight."
  • Hemiplegia - (hemi meaning half) affects one side of body, either right or left. Muscle tone is usually high or spastic.
  • Spastic Quadraplegia - (quad meaning 4) affects arms, legs and trunk; muscle tone is usually high or spastic.
  • Hypotonia - muscle tone is usually low or "floppy" ; whole body is usually affected.
  • Choreoathetoid - whole body is usually affected, although sometimes can affect just one side of the body; muscle tone is primarily low or floppy. Movements of arms and legs appear over exaggerated and uncoordinated and can cause fluctuation of muscle tone.
  • Ataxia - whole body is usually affected, although sometimes just arms may appear affected. Muscle tone is low or "floppy". Movements of arms or legs appear jerky and uncoordinated and can cause fluctuation of muscle tone.

Your child's pediatrician or neurologist is best able to accurately establish which type of Cerebral Palsy your child might have. It is helpful for the parent or caregiver to have an understanding of muscle tone as this plays an important role in the diagnosis of which type of Cerebral Palsy the child has and also the treatment approach that best suits the child's needs. Normal muscle tone refers to the elasticity and normal tension muscles "feel" when a person is at rest; normal muscle tone allows give and take for all the muscles in the body to move freely and easily. Abnormal tightness or rigidity of muscles in Cerebral Palsy are referred to as spastic or high muscle tone. Abnormal floppiness or "softness" of muscles in Cerebral Palsy are referred to as floppy or low muscle tone. It is important to note that muscle tone can fluctuate between high and low and also vary in the degree. Muscle tone can be affected by effort involved when the child moves or even attempts to speak; it can change when the child is overly tired, tearful or joyful. The range of high or low muscle tone is usually graded as minimal, moderate and severe. It is unlikely to identify an accurate diagnosis at birth, since a newborn baby has limited movement patterns. A child with mild Cerebral Palsy may not be identified until 1-2 years at age when delayed milestones (sitting, walking) are noted by the parents or caregiver. It is recommended to address concerns to your physician who is able to refer you to an appropriate health professional for assessment.

The "treatment" of Cerebral Palsy does not have to be contained to a hospital or medical setting. To enhance overall development and growth of your child we recommend exploring community and educational programs.

  • How Can I Help? A cerebral palsy booklet with information for friends and relatives. Be sure to read "Welcome to Holland" an excellent description of what it is like to be a parent of a child with a disability, located at the end of the booklet.
  • For a selection of articles on communication, positioning, and computer technology, go to the National Center to Improve Practice in Special Education.
  • OurKids A homepage written by parents for parents.