Cerebral palsy is a group of permanent disorders affecting the development of movement and causing a limitation of activity. Non-progressive disturbances that manifest in the developing fetal or infant brain lead to cerebral palsy. It is the most common cause of childhood disability. The degree and type of motor impairment and functional capabilities vary depending on the etiology. Cerebral palsy may have several associated comorbidities, including epilepsy, musculoskeletal problems, intellectual disability, feeding difficulties, visual abnormalities, hearing abnormalities, and communication difficulties. Treatment of cerebral palsy should take an interprofessional approach.
Abnormal development or damage to the fetal or infant's brain causes cerebral palsy. The brain insult/injury causing CP is non-progressive (“static”) and can occur in the prenatal, perinatal or postnatal periods. The etiology in an individual patient is often multifactorial.
Other risk factors associated with cerebral palsy are multiple gestation, intrauterine growth restriction, maternal substance abuse, preeclampsia, chorioamnionitis, abnormal placental pathology, meconium aspiration, perinatal hypoglycemia, and genetic susceptibility.
Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of childhood disability. It occurs in 1.5 to 2.5/1000 live births. The prevalence is significantly higher in infants born prematurely than infants born at term. The risk of developing cerebral palsy increases with declining gestational age with infants born at less than 28 weeks gestational age being at most risk. The prevalence is also higher in low birthweight infants. Very low birth weight (less than 1500 grams) infants born are at greatest risk; 5% to 15% of infants born weighing less than 1500 grams develop cerebral palsy. Prenatal events cause approximately 80% of cerebral palsy cases, and postnatal events cause about 10% of cases.
Cerebral palsy is a clinical diagnosis based mostly on information gathered from the patient’s history and physical exam. The clinical history should focus on identifying risk factors and likely etiologies of the patient’s cerebral palsy. The history should include a detailed prenatal, birth, and developmental history. Developmental history should pay particular attention to motor development. In cerebral palsy motor development is delayed. A history of developmental regression is not consistent with cerebral palsy. Family history is important as well. Multiple family members with similar delayed development or neurologic disorders as the patient should prompt consideration of a genetic etiology of cerebral palsy or a disorder that mimics CP. Clinical history should also focus on screening for co-morbid disorders including epilepsy, musculoskeletal abnormalities, pain, visual and hearing difficulties, feeding problems, communication disorders, and behavioral disorders.
The physical exam should focus on identifying clinical signs of cerebral palsy. Head circumference, mental status, muscle tone and strength, posture, reflexes (primitive, postural, and deep tendon reflexes), and gait should be evaluated. Clinical signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy can include micro- or macrocephaly, excessive irritability or diminished interaction, hyper- or hypotonia, spasticity, dystonia, muscle weakness, a persistence of primitive reflexes, abnormal or absent postural reflexes, incoordination, and hyperreflexia.
The physical exam is also used to identify the cerebral palsy type. Cerebral palsy is characterized by the type of tone abnormality and distribution of motor abnormalities. The subtypes of cerebral palsy are:
Clinical history and physical exam combined with neuroimaging and standardized developmental assessments are used to make a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Brain MRI is the preferred imaging modality for evaluating the cause of cerebral palsy. MRI has a higher diagnostic yield than CT and provides better detail of the brain’s anatomy. MRI has an 86% to 89% sensitivity for detecting abnormal neuroanatomy in the motor areas of the brain. A cranial ultrasound performed in the neonatal/early infancy period can be useful in identifying intraventricular hemorrhage, ventriculomegaly, and periventricular leukomalacia.
For early detection of cerebral palsy standardized developmental assessments along with neuroimaging should be used. The General Movements Assessment (GM) is a standardized motor assessment used in children under age 5 months corrected age. The GM observes the quality of spontaneous movements in infants while lying supine. Cramped-synchronized general movements and the absence of fidgety movements between 9 to 20 months reliably predict cerebral palsy. It has a 98% sensitivity and 89% to 93% inter-rater reliability. The Hammersmith Infant Neurological Exam (HINE) is a standardized neurological assessment that can be administered between the ages of 2 and 24 months. It consists of 37 items and is subdivided into 3 sections: physical exam, documentation of motor development, and evaluation of the behavior state. The HINE has a 90% sensitivity for detecting cerebral palsy.
An EEG should be obtained in patients suspected of having seizures. Patients with stroke as a cause of their cerebral palsy should undergo thrombophilia screening. Pro-thrombotic coagulation abnormalities are seen in 50% to 60% of patients with a history of stroke.
The clinical signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy can be seen in many other conditions. Slowly progressive disorders can be mistaken for cerebral palsy, and sometimes these disorders have a specific treatment that halts the progression, prevents complications, or treats the primary underlying pathophysiology of the condition. Therefore, it is essential to screen for disorders that mimic cerebral palsy when the clinical history, physical exam, and neuroimaging are atypical for cerebral palsy. The following historical features are concerning for an alternative diagnosis: family history of cerebral palsy or other neurologic disorders, no known risk factor for cerebral palsy, developmental regression, hypotonia associated with weakness, rapid loss of neurologic skills, worsening during fasting or illness, oculomotor abnormalities, or sensory loss. A metabolic work up to screen for inborn errors of metabolism should be obtained in patients who have a progressive course or decompensation during periods of catabolism. Genetic workup should be obtained in those with dysmorphic features, brain malformations, family history of cerebral palsy, or if there is a history of consanguinity. Lumbar puncture should be obtained in patients with unexplained refractory seizures or movement disorders to screen for neurotransmitter disorders and glucose transporter deficiency.
Treatment of cerebral palsy takes a interprofessional team approach. The team includes physicians (primary care, neurologists, physiatrists, orthopedists, and other specialists needed based on co-existing conditions), therapists (physical, occupational, and speech), behavioral health specialists, social workers/case managers, and educational specialists. Interventions should focus on maximizing the quality of life and decreasing disability burden. The patient, family, and team should set functional goals that are realistic and periodically reevaluated.
Oral and injectable (e.g., botulinum toxin) medications are used to treat tone abnormalities, pain, and comorbid conditions such as epilepsy, sialorrhea, gastrointestinal disturbances, and behavior disorders. Medications used for spasticity include benzodiazepines, baclofen, dantrolene, tizanidine, cyclobenzaprine, botulinum toxin, and phenol. Dystonia is often treated with trihexyphenidyl, gabapentin, carbidopa-levodopa, and benztropine. Sialorrhea is treated with glycopyrrolate, atropine drops, and scopolamine patches. Anti-seizure medications are used in patients with epilepsy. Constipation is a frequent complication of cerebral palsy and is treated with stool softeners and pro-motility agents. Anti-inflammatories are used for pain and antidepressants for depression and anxiety.
Surgical management options include placement of a baclofen pump, selective dorsal rhizotomy, tendon releases, hip derotation/rotation surgery, spinal fusion, strabismus repair, and deep brain stimulation.
Conditions that can mimic cerebral palsy include neurodegenerative disorders, inborn errors of metabolism, developmental abnormalities of the spinal cord, neuromuscular disorders, movement disorders, and neoplasms. Below is a list of differential considerations based on the predominant clinical feature.
Most children with cerebral palsy will survive into adulthood. Life expectancy is reduced in those who are severely affected. The most common cause of early death is respiratory disease, usually aspiration pneumonia.
The prognosis of motor abilities depends on the cerebral palsy subtype, the rate of motor development, ascertainment of developmental reflexes, and cognitive abilities. Children who walk independently typically achieve this milestone by 3 years of age. Those who walk with support may take up to age 9 years to reach this milestone. A child that is not walking by age 9 years is unlikely to walk even with support. Children with hemiplegic, choreoathetoid, and ataxic cerebral palsy are likely to achieve walking. Good prognostic indicators for independent walking are sitting by age 24 months and crawling by 30 months. Poor prognostic indicators for walking include no having achieved head balance by 20 months, primitive reflexes retained or nor postural reflexes by age 24 months, and not crawling by age 5 years.
A variety of complications can accompany cerebral palsy including:
Cerebral palsy is a term used to describe a group of disorders that are caused by a non-progressive brain abnormality which results in difficulty with movement, tone, and/or posture. There are several factors during pregnancy, around the time of birth, and after birth that play a role in the development of cerebral palsy. The major risk factors for cerebral palsy are prematurity and low birth weight. Other causes of cerebral palsy include stroke, lack of oxygen to the brain, infections of the brain, and abnormal development of the brain. Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of childhood disability. Cerebral palsy is a clinical diagnosis and made by obtaining a detailed prenatal and birth history, physical exam, and neuroimaging. Treatment is aimed at achieving the best functional outcomes and takes an interprofessional team approach. Routine prenatal care and measures to reduce preterm birth lower the risk of cerebral palsy.
Clinicians should aim to recognize the signs of cerebral palsy and make the diagnosis of cerebral palsy or “high risk of cerebral palsy” as early as possible. Early diagnosis can improve functional outcomes and reduce disease burden because starting interventions early can optimize neuroplasticity. Historically the diagnosis of cerebral palsy was made between the ages of 12 to 24 months. Experts now feel the diagnosis can be made or accurately predicted before age 6 months corrected age. Delays in diagnosis can be harmful to parent and caregiver’s well-being. A diagnosis allows parents to receive psychological support and resources. Patients with known risk factors for cerebral palsy should be referred for further diagnostic testing including neuroimaging and standardized developmental assessments. (Level I) Despite the best treatment, the lifespan of most individuals with cerebral palsy is significantly reduced.  (Level II)
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