Brain, Nervous System and Mental Conditions

Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity

What Are Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a condition that affects muscle movement. It is usually caused by damage to one or more areas of the brain. This damage can happen to the developing baby while the mother is pregnant, or during birth. In a small number of children, it can develop after birth. CP affects muscle movement and may be associated with difficulties in learning, hearing, seeing and thinking.

The muscles of some children with CP are constantly stiff and rigid. Children with CP may also have reflexes they cannot control. This is called spasticity. Movement is very difficult and often awkward for these children.

Spasticity leads to muscles and joints that are tight all of the time (contractures). Children with spasticity may also have:

  • Dystonia, a movement disorder that causes uncontrollable tightening of the muscles. The child may jerk or twist at random times.
  • Athetosis, a movement disorder that involves continuous twisting and rolling movements of the fingers, hands and toes

Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity in Children

Cerebral palsy affects one to two children in every 1,000 born. Most children who have CP are born with it (congenital). A small number of children develop cerebral palsy after birth, a condition called acquired cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy may not be noticed for months or years after a child's birth. Early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before a child is 2 or 3 years old. Cerebral palsy is not progressive. That is, it does not get worse over time.

CP seems more likely to affect babies that are born early (premature). Some of the known causes of the condition are:

  • Lack of oxygen to the brain (anoxic injury)
  • Physical injury to the brain or spinal cord, including bleeding into spaces in the brain that produce cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) (ventricles)
  • Infections

Some children have cerebral palsy without any obvious cause.

Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity at Seattle Children's

Our team has a great deal of experience caring for children with cerebral palsy. Our Neurodevelopmental Clinic brings together experts from different specialties, including physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and orthotics and prosthetics, to treat your child. We help your child and your family manage cerebral palsy and spasticity as your child grows.

When surgery may benefit your child, our neurosurgeons offer two procedures that help reduce spasticity:

  • Selective dorsal rhizotomy
  • Baclofen pump

Our neurosurgeons have placed (implanted) baclofen pumps in more than 175 children. We have provided follow-up care to about half of them.