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What is cerebral palsy?

By Elaine Meehan, Kylie Crompton and Tessa Devries
Developmental Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Murdoch Children's Research Institute

To celebrate World Cerebral Palsy Day, we would like to put cerebral palsy on the map by highlighting some facts to dispel a few of the myths associated with this condition.

Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of childhood physical disability worldwide. It affects around two in every 1,000 children. Each year, around 120 Victorian-born children are diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is primarily a disorder of movement and posture. Children with cerebral palsy are also more likely than their typically-developing peers to have an intellectual impairment and/or epilepsy, as well as problems with their speech, vision, and hearing; however it is important to know that many children with cerebral palsy do not have any of these impairments.

Cerebral palsy is not progressive. This means that although the condition is life-long, it does not get steadily worse as the child gets older. However secondary conditions, particularly conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system, can develop which may get better or worse over time. Thankfully, due to some excellent research, including some from researchers here at the Melbourne Children’s campus, there are a range of surgical and non-surgical interventions available to help improve some of the musculoskeletal issues faced by children and young people with cerebral palsy. These include orthopaedic surgeries, oral medications, and intra-muscular injections of botulinum toxin-A (yes, botox!). 

Most children with cerebral palsy are able to walk independently. Research from Victoria tells us that the majority of children with cerebral palsy (around 60%) are able to walk independently, 10% walk with aids such as crutches, and around 30% use a wheelchair.

For some children with cerebral palsy, despite extensive testing, the cause of their disability remains unknown. In the past, it was thought that all cases of cerebral palsy were caused by the infant being deprived of oxygen during birth. Today, it is accepted that only a minority of cases of cerebral palsy can be attributed to events that occur around the time of labour and delivery, and in most cases, cerebral palsy is caused by a series of interacting factors that originate prior to labour.

There are many factors associated with an increased risk of cerebral palsy. These include premature birth, multiple pregnancy (e.g. twin, triplet), birth defects (particularly defects affecting the brain), decreased foetal growth, and problems with the mother’s placenta. There is also evidence emerging that some cases of cerebral palsy have a genetic cause.

The majority of individuals with cerebral palsy have a similar life expectancy to the general population. Research from Victoria tells us that 80% of individuals with cerebral palsy survive to at least 40 years of age. They have a quality of life similar to the general population, and can be active members of their community. Individuals with cerebral palsy take part in all types of sports ranging from boccia to skiing and everything in between.  

Many children with cerebral palsy grow up to be independent adults. Though young people with cerebral palsy, particularly those with a more severe motor impairment and multiple comorbidities, may face some difficulties and challenges that their peers don’t, many young people with cerebral palsy live independent, fulfilling lives. But don’t take our word for it – read these two blogs by inspirational people with cerebral palsy;

If you would like any further information on any of the research mentioned in this blog post, or to find out about some of the other cerebral palsy research being carried out at MCRI, please contact the team on  

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