Common Causes of Cerebral Palsy

More than 500,000 Americans have cerebral palsy, a type of brain damage that impairs movement and can cause mental retardation. Cerebral palsy is one of the most common causes of childhood disability. Annually, between two and four of every 1,000 live births in the U.S. are affected.

The origins of cerebral palsy are rooted in congenital factors, injuries at birth or injury or illness within the first two to three years of life. Children with cerebral palsy may exhibit stiffness and rigidity in movement, abnormal muscle tone, cognitive impairment, problems with speech and seizures.

Babies born to teen mothers or women older than 35 carry a higher risk of having CP. Problems during pregnancy that can increase the risk for baby palsy include:

• Infections during pregnancy: Rubella (German measles), cytomegalovirus (a herpes-type virus), and toxoplasmosis (an infection caused by a parasite that can be carried in cat feces or inadequately cooked meat) all have the potential of causing fetal brain damage.

• Uterine or birth canal infections: These conditions may cause inflammation of the placenta, which can damage the brain of the fetus and lead to CP.

• Hormones: Use of estrogen or thyroid hormones during pregnancy have been linked to cerebral palsy.

• Drugs and alcohol: Illegal drugs, alcohol and some prescription medications, such as methotrexate, are suspected in fetal brain damage leading to CP.

• Other factors: Bleeding in the uterus in the third trimester, large amounts of protein in the urine and high blood sugar levels also may contribute to babies with palsy.

Complications during the birth also can cause cerebral palsy. These complications provoke brain damage in the infant and give rise to CP and its host of symptoms. Premature babies are at the highest risk for complications during birth. Problems include:

• Difficult labor: The trauma of a prolonged birth and oxygen deprivation for the fetus increases the risk. The early separation of the placenta from the uterine wall also can deprive the fetus of oxygen.

• Breech birth: When the baby emerges from the birth canal feet, knees or buttocks first, the potential for brain damage increases.

• Maternal infections: If the mother has a strep infection, for example, and this reaches the baby’s brain during birth, brain damage and cerebral palsy are potential consequences.

Cerebral palsy also can result from brain damage after birth. Serious illness or injury leading to a lack of oxygen to the brain can cause CP in infants.

Evidence of cerebral palsy may not emerge immediately after birth. Parents and caregivers may see the first signs of a problem when the child fails to meet development milestones for rolling over, crawling or walking.

Most people with CP have spastic cerebral palsy, which can affect either the whole body or specific regions and cause muscle stiffness and an imbalanced posture. About 75 percent of people with baby palsy develop some degree of mental impairment. More than half of this group has mild to severe mental retardation. The remainder can function normally but has some type of learning disability.

Erb’s palsy is limited form of baby palsy involving muscle impairment in the arm. Between one and two babies in every 1,000 live births have this condition. Erb’s palsy arises after a network of nerves near the neck, the brachial plexus, is stretched. These nerves control the feeling in and movement of the arm, hand and fingers.

This injury typically occurs during a difficult birth or prolonged labor. If the baby is breech in presentation or must be pulled from the birth canal quickly or with force, this cluster of nerves can be damaged. Most babies with this palsy recover on their own, but it can take as long as two years for the recovery to be complete.