What Are the Different Classifications of Cerebral Palsy?


Cerebral palsy (CP) is a neurological disorder that is caused by damage to the brain, often before or during birth. People with CP lose the ability to control their muscles, which affects their movement, balance, and posture. CP is the most common cause of childhood movement disability, affecting 1 in 323 children. Almost half of the children who have cerebral palsy are unable to walk on their own.

When someone has cerebral palsy, their muscle tone may be higher or lower than normal. Muscle tone that is too high is called “hypertonia.” When it’s too low, it’s called “hypotonia.”

People with cerebral palsy will have different symptoms, depending on what areas of their brains were damaged. Symptoms are stiff muscles, uncontrollable movements, or poor balance and coordination.

Doctors classify cerebral palsy according to the type of movement disorder and the areas of the body that are affected. A common classification system divides cerebral palsy into four types, which are diagnosed by doctors conducting a physical exam, reviewing a patient’s history, and sometimes ordering imaging or other tests.

Spastic Cerebral Palsy

Spastic cerebral palsy (sometimes called “pyramidal cerebral palsy”) is the type of CP that is the most common, affecting 75 to 80 percent of children with cerebral palsy. Children with spastic CP have muscles that are stiff and tight as the result of hypertonia (higher-than-normal muscle tone). Movements can be jerky, awkward, or exaggerated.

Spastic cerebral palsy is subdivided into three types based on what part of the body is affected:

Spastic diplegia or diparesis

The legs are the most affected, and the child may have difficulty walking. The child may exhibit “scissoring,” caused by tight hip and leg muscles pulling their legs inward, crossing at the knees.

An early sign of spastic diplegia is when an infant crawls using only their arms and not their legs.

Spastic hemiplegia or hemiparesis

Spastic hemiplegia affects only one side of the body, more often an arm rather than a leg.

Spastic quadriplegia or quadriparesis

Spastic quadriplegia is the most severe form of spastic CP, affecting all the limbs, the trunk, and the face. Children with spastic quadriplegia CP usually can’t walk. They may have other disabilities as well, such as spinal deformities, intellectual disabilities, seizures, and problems with vision, hearing, or speech.

What Causes Spastic Cerebral Palsy?

Damage to the brain’s motor cortex and pyramidal tracts is the cause of spastic cerebral palsy.

The symptoms of spastic CP may not be apparent until the child starts missing developmental milestones. It may not be diagnosed until the child is 18-months old.

Athetoid Cerebral Palsy

Although Athetoid CP (also called “dyskinetic CP” or “non-spastic CP”) is the second-most common type of cerebral palsy, it is much less common than spastic CP, affecting about 10 percent of children with cerebral palsy.

People who have athetoid CP have uncontrollable movements of their torsos, hands, arms, feet, and legs.  Their movements may be fast and jerking or slow and writhing. Their faces and tongues may also be affected. If so, they may have difficulty talking and swallowing.

Athetoid CP involves both hypertonia (muscle tone too high) and hypotonia (muscle tone too low).

What Causes Athetoid Cerebral Palsy?

Athetoid CP is caused by damage to the brain’s basal ganglia, which regulates voluntary motor functions, and/or the cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination. It is most often caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.

Ataxic Cerebral Palsy

Ataxic CP is an uncommon form of CP that causes problems with balance and coordination. Symptoms include unsteadiness when walking, difficulty speaking, trouble with depth perception, and difficulty with movements that are quick or need to be controlled, such as those involved in writing.

Diagnoses of ataxic CP usually don’t take place until the child is around 18 months.

What Causes Ataxic Cerebral Palsy?

Ataxic CP is caused by damage to the cerebellum, which controls coordination and balance.

Mixed Type of Cerebral Palsy

In fewer than 10 percent of cerebral palsy cases, a child exhibits symptoms of more than one type of cerebral palsy. The most common mixed type is a combination of spastic and athetoid (dyskinetic).

What Causes Mixed Type Cerebral Palsy?

Mixed type cerebral palsy occurs when more than one area of the developing brain is damaged.

Other Ways to Classify Cerebral Palsy

In addition to the four main classifications of cerebral palsy, doctors may also classify CP according to the severity of the symptoms.

Another classification system is the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS), which assigns a level from 1 to 5 based on how self-sufficient a child is expected to become. Level 1 means a child can walk without limitations. Level 5 means a child will need extensive technological and physical assistance.

Can I Sue for Medical Malpractice If My Child Has Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain while it is still developing during pregnancy, birth, or shortly after. Unfortunately, that damage is sometimes caused by the carelessness or mistakes of medical professionals. About 10 percent of children born with cerebral palsy developed the condition because of medical error.

If your child developed cerebral palsy because of negligent medical treatment, you may be eligible for compensation for medical bills, other expenses, and pain and suffering that resulted from the substandard treatment.

Contact Us for a Free Evaluation

The Philadelphia Birth Injury attorneys at Raynes & Lawn are recognized as being among the best in the country. We have a long record of achieving outstanding results and have repeatedly been named a Tier 1 law firm for obtaining justice for our medical malpractice clients.

Proving a medical malpractice case that involves brain damage at birth requires a great deal of skill and experience. This is a technical area of the law that relies on expert witnesses and documentary evidence. The experienced Cerebral Palsy lawyers at Raynes & Lawn will be glad to talk to you. Fill out our contact form or call us at 1-800-535-1797 for a free consultation.

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