What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage or abnormal development in the parts of the brain that control movement. These events can happen before, during, or shortly after birth or in the first few years of life, when the brain is still developing. In many cases the exact cause of cerebral palsy is not known.1,2

The majority of children with cerebral palsy were born with the condition, a situation called congenital cerebral palsy.

Causes of cerebral palsy that occur before birth include1,2:

  • Damage to the white matter of the brain. The brain’s white matter sends signals throughout the brain and the rest of the body. Damage to white matter can disrupt the signals between the brain and the body that control movement. The white matter in the fetus’s brain is more sensitive to injury between 26 weeks and 34 weeks of pregnancy, but damage can happen at any time during pregnancy.
  • Abnormal brain development. Disruptions in the normal growth process of the brain can cause abnormalities. These abnormalities affect the transmission of brain signals. Infections, fever, trauma, or gene changes (mutations) can cause the brain to develop abnormally.
  • Bleeding in the brain. A fetus can have a stroke, which is a common cause of brain bleeding. Strokes occur when blood vessels in the brain become blocked or broken, leading to brain damage. Conditions including blood clotting problems, abnormally formed blood vessels, heart defects, and sickle cell disease can also cause bleeding in the brain.
  • Lack of oxygen in the brain. The brain can become damaged if it does not get enough oxygen for a long time. Very low blood pressure in the mother, a torn uterus, detachment of the placenta, problems with the umbilical cord, or severe trauma to the infant’s head during labor and delivery can prevent oxygen from getting to the brain.

A small number of children have what is called acquired cerebral palsy, which means the disorder begins more than 28 days after birth. Causes of acquired cerebral palsy may include1,2:

  • Brain damage in the first few months or years of life
  • Infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis
  • Problems with blood flow to the brain due to stroke, blood clotting problems, abnormal blood vessels, a heart defect that was present at birth, or sickle cell disease
  • Head injury from a car accident, a fall, or child abuse

  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2013). Cerebral palsy: Hope through research. Retrieved August 10, 2013, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Causes and risk factors of cerebral palsy. Retrieved August 11, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/causes.html